A computer-controlled drone launched, flew and landed alongside a fighter jet during an exercise Sunday off the Virginia coast — proving for the first time that manned and unmanned aircraft can operate together.
In tests aboard the Norfolk-based USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy launched an F/A-18 Hornet and the X-47B, a prototype unmanned aircraft. After a 24-minute flight, the X-47B landed on the carrier's flight deck, folded its wings and taxied away from the landing area, allowing the Hornet to land.
"What you saw today was history," said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, at a news conference following the trial runs. "It was history in the making and it's the next steps in our understanding of how technologies come together to the tactical — to provide a war-fighting capabilities."
The X-47B is largely autonomous and doesn't require human guidance to fly. Instead, it receives directions via computers and sensors, then flies itself, though it won't decide to break off and follow something on its own.
Sunday's demonstration was the first of six test launches and landings the Navy planned for the drone and jet during a 10-day period aboard the Roosevelt. Later this week, the Navy also plans to test the X-47B's movement on deck at night and in varying wind.
Despite a few delays, Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Aviation office, said the test met all objectives.
The drone that was supposed to participate in Sunday's trial did not make it to the carrier, but instead returned to shore after a fuel pump problem was discovered.
Another X-47B took its place, but its catapult launch was delayed because the bow of the carrier was slightly lower than its rear. For launching experimental aircraft, the flight deck must be level or better, Duarte said. It took about 30 minutes to move equipment and transfer fuel to the rear of the ship.
The Hornet took off first, followed by the drone. Both banked around the ship at about 1,200 feet for an eight-minute flight pattern and passed overhead. Another eight minutes passed when the drone approached the carrier, touched down and then immediately took off again — this sequence was meant to verify that all of the X-47B's systems were working correctly.
After another pass, the drone landed and caught a wire on the ship's deck with an auto-retractable hook. A deck operator wearing a newly designed control steered the X-47B out of the way for the jet to land. Then the sequence was repeated.
The trial marks the prototype X-47B's fifth test period at sea, according to the Navy. Last summer, it made history after successfully landing aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time.
Since then, the drone has completed eight catapult launches from a carrier, 30 touch-and-goes, and seven arrested landings aboard USS George H.W. Bush and the Roosevelt.
It is expected to take years of additional work before unmanned aircraft become a regular part of the Navy's air wings, but Sunday's trial is a step closer.
The prototype is being used to develop a new class of drone that will launch from carriers, alongside manned aircraft, with surveillance and strike capabilities. Winter said this program, called UCLASS, has been delayed for deployment until 2020.
Winter said it is important to "bring these technologies together in war-fighting capabilities to provide the decisive advantage and that capability enhancement, so we can continue to fight the fight and win."
But he said the drones will not take the place of manned craft nor will computers take the place of pilots.
"It's not an unmanned over all others," Winter said. "It's a blending of unmanned and manned capabilities, and that will be the naval aviation strategy as we move into the future."
©2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)