NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — After flying for the first time here in late July, the U.S. Navy’s X-47B is being prepped for next year, when the unmanned aircraft will make its first completely autonomous aircraft carrier landing.
The most difficult part won’t be taking off from and landing on the ship.
“The biggest challenge is situational awareness, to make sure that everybody understands what’s going on,” said Cmdr. Jeff Dodge, head of carrier integration for unmanned combat systems, during a media day here.
Another big challenge, Dodge said, is programming the aircraft to act just like there’s a pilot inside, preparing it for the countless tasks that occur from the time a plane rides the elevator up from the hangar to the catapult shot, and then again from when it catches the wire on the flight deck and taxies away.
The next year will be packed with baby steps that must be completed before that first landing can be attempted.
There will be jet blast deflector tests, catapult launches and landings with arresting gear. Its flight envelope will also be evaluated, officials said.
The first flight at Pax River took place July 29 and lasted 35 minutes. There are two planes at the station, and both previously flew at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Besides the initial flight, both planes have completed electromagnetic interference evaluations to ensure there is no interference with the carrier.
There will be a series of tests to make sure it can operate on a flight deck before it ever lands on a carrier. It’s unclear if carrier-based flight tests will begin immediately after or during some later evaluation phase.
The first trap will be on an East Coast carrier, but which one will depend on schedules, said Capt. Jamie Engdahl, program officer for Unmanned Combat Air Systems. Perhaps an indicator: The Harry S. Truman was outfitted with X-47B control equipment during its latest availability. And in July, the ship hosted a “surrogate” test, in which an F/A-18D Hornet fighter jet was equipped with software and hardware to create autonomous flight. It completed a series of autonomous landings and traps, with a pilot onboard but not toggling the controls.
It was very precise as it approached to land, making corrections on the way down, Dodge said.
“It caught the three-wire every time,” he said, referring to the arresting wire pilots try to hit when they land.