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X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator
X-47B Pegasus UCAV

On 10 July 2013, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) completed its first-ever carrier-based arrested landing on board USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) off the coast of Virginia. The demonstration was the first time a tailless, unmanned autonomous aircraft landed on a modern aircraft carrier. During the test, the X-47B completed a 35 minute transit from Pax River to the carrier and caught the 3 wire with the aircraft's tailhook. The arrested landing effectively brought the aircraft from approximately 145 knots to stop in less than 350 feet. Shortly after the initial landing, the aircraft was launched off the ship using the carrier's catapult. The X-47B then proceeded to execute one more arrested landing. The aircraft was launched again, but on the third approach the X-47B aircraft self-detected a navigation computer anomaly that required the air vehicle to transit to the assigned shore based divert landing site, Wallops Island Air Field. The X-47B navigated to and landed without incident.

Air Force pilots practice flying the airplane. Navy pilots practice landing the airplane. Drones do not need to practice. An absolutely preposterous amount of the Navy's budget goes to Navy pilots practicing landing the plane on the aircraft carrier. Not the actual landing itself, but the maintenance on the aircraft from all the flying hours, and the large staff required to support the maintainers, and the cost of steaming at sea for training, and so forth.

The arrested landing of the X-47B aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in July 2013 ranks with Eugene Ely's flight from USS Birmingham on 14 November 1910. Eugene Ely, a demonstration pilot working with airplane builder Glenn Curtiss, was responsible for the historic achievement that marked the physical beginning of U.S. Navy flying. Ely took off from a wooden platform constructed over the foredeck of the scout cruiser Birmingham. This structure sloped down 5 degrees from the cruiser's bridge to her bow to provide a gravity-assisted 57-foot takeoff run for Ely's Curtiss pusher airplane. He touched down on nearby Willoughby Spit after some 5 minutes in the air. This 2 and a half mile flight, the first time an airplane had taken off from a warship, was something of a stunt. However, it received wide publicity. On 18 January 1911, on the opposite side of the Continent in San Francisco Bay, Eugene Ely would again operate from a ship, landing and taking off from the armored cruiser Pennsylvania.

Not everyone is cut out to be a pilot, and even fewer are cut out to land an airplane on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier at night in inclement weather. Robots, on the other hand, have reactions of inhuman speed and precision. Once UAVs demonstrated a knack for aircraft carrier operations, perhaps the Navy could fly the air wing crew to the carrier when actual combat was imminent, along with the significant fraction of the ship’s complement needed to sustain the air wing. In peacetime, the carrier’s complement might not number much more than a 1,000, compared to the existing compliment of some 5,000.

The mission of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) Aircraft Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) is to mature technologies for a carrier suitable unmanned air system (UAS), while reducing risk for UAS carrier integration and developing the critical data necessary to support potential follow-on acquisition programs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy J-UCAS program was intended to demonstrate the technical feasibility and operational utility of low-observable-or "stealth"-land- and sea-based unmanned surveillance attack aircraft, and provide the Air Force and Navy the option to acquire these systems early in the next decade. The X-47B design demonstrates a variety of foundational system capabilities including land- and carrier-based operations and automated aerial refueling. The design also demonstrates key mission-requirement capabilities such as persistent surveillance and reconnaissance, all-weather precision targeting, and precision attack of fixed and mobile surface targets. The X-47B is Northrop Grumman's initial air-vehicle configuration for the modular X-47 system, which can support a broad range of advanced unmanned air-vehicle configurations and military operational performance requirements.

As the small UCAV aircraft were being demonstrated for the first time, the tactical environment was changing. In Operation Enduring Freedom, both the Air Force and the Navy experienced very long transit times associated with air combat in a remote region. Crews found themselves flying thousands of miles just to get to the combat zone. In addition, the Defense Department was becoming ever more aware of the hazards of anti-access threats - those enemy capabilities which might prevent the establishment of either land- or sea-based tactical units in a threatened region. One result was evolution of the Air Force UCAV design to provide more range and persistence in the battle space.

The Northrop Grumman/Lockheed Martin team was the first to release its vision of a carrier capable UCAV to meet the Navy's need. The "cranked kite" design shows its clear ancestry to the X-47A Pegasus, with the addition of winglets to improve low speed handling and endurance of the vehicle. Weighing in at over 42,000 lbs with 4,500 lbs of weapons payload, it defines the larger end of the then-current J-UCAS family of vehicles.

On April 15, 2003 Northrop Grumman Corporation's Integrated Systems sector unveiled its operational system concept for a naval unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV-N) designed to fly surveillance, strike and suppression-of-enemy-air-defense missions from an aircraft carrier. The concept represents Northrop Grumman's participation in an emerging government competition to develop and demonstrate UCAVs that could perform U.S. Navy and Air Force missions.

The concept combined the "kite" aerodynamic shape successfully demonstrated by the company's tailless X-47A Pegasus experimental unmanned vehicle with a "flying wing" shape. The kite design enables efficient integration of propulsion and weapons, while the wing extensions provide aerodynamic efficiency. The air vehicle design also provides long endurance, high survivability and the low-speed, aerodynamic flying qualities and precision landing capabilities required for autonomous launch and recovery operations from a carrier. Northrop Grumman was conducting technology and risk-reduction studies under Phase IIA of the UCAV-N program managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Navy.

This operational UCAV-N concept meets all naval UCAV requirements while leveraging the company's unmatched experience in unmanned systems, precision strike, electronic warfare and low observable or stealth technologies. "The design also has the flexibility to meet Air Force requirements in the government's emerging joint UCAV program. Northrop Grumman already had a wealth of data generated from the company-funded Pegasus program and from extensive wind tunnel testing of the UCAV operational concept air vehicle.

The UCAV-N concept also built on the company's extensive experience with autonomous flight control, including thousands of flight hours by its combat-proven Global Hawk and Fire Scout unmanned systems. Secor noted tha t Global Hawk, Fire Scout and Pegasus all completed their first flights, from engine start to shutdown, without human intervention.

In May 2003 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued Northrop Grumman Corporation's Integrated Systems sector an undefinitized contract modification worth up to $160 million to produce and demonstrate a minimum of two full-scale X-47B unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). The X-47Bs will demonstrate the technical and operational feasibility of using a UAV to conduct U.S. Navy missions from an aircraft carrier. Northrop Grumman will also demonstrate how a UCAV can be used to satisfy U.S. Air Force mission requirements.

The award is a modification to the company's current Phase IIA UCAV agreement. It marks the beginning of Phase IIB of the Naval UCAV advanced technology effort. Over the next 90 days, Northrop Grumman will develop a detailed cost and development schedule for the program, which is expected to run through 2006.

This award further strengthens Northrop Grumman's partnership with the Department of Defense in developing UAVs that can perform critical surveillance, suppression of enemy air defense and strike missions. Lessons learned from our successful X-47A Pegasus, Global Hawk and Fire Scout programs give us the experience to deliver and successfully integrate a high reliability UCAV solution for today's network-centric battlefield.

Under terms of the agreement, Northrop Grumman will adapt its current X-47B UCAV design to accommodate a consolidated set of Navy and Air Force science and technology objectives. The common objectives include a combat radius of 1,300 nautical miles with a payload of 4,500 pounds, and the ability to loiter for two hours over a target up to 1,000 nautical miles away. In addition to developing the air vehicle and its autonomous control system, the contract also calls for development of a UCAV mission control system.

The focus of Phase IIB of the Naval UCAV program was to design, develop and integrate a UCAV demonstration system that can demonstrate the critical and enabling technologies, processes and system attributes (TPSA) relevant to operations on and around an aircraft carrier. These TPSAs include development of a robust air vehicle; shipboard integration; deck operations; carrier air space operations; command, control and communications suitable for a carrier environment; human-systems interface suitable for a carrier environment and reliable, repeatable catapult takeoff and arrested landing performance.

The X-47B team completed its System Requirements Review in 2004, at which time it planned to see first flight in 2006.

On 18 August 2004 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., Integrated Systems Sector, Unmanned Systems, San Diego, Calif., a $1,037,274,437 other transaction for prototypes agreement for the next five years of the X-47B portion of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) demonstration program. Under the newly awarded agreement, the Northrop Grumman team will conduct a five-year effort to design, develop and demonstrate a minimum of three full-scale, flight-worthy air vehicles and three mission control systems. The system will include integrated sensors, communication, navigation equipment and low observability features, along with a common operating system to meet mission capability objectives established by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy.

The targeted missions encompass suppression of enemy air defenses, penetrating surveillance in denied enemy airspace, and precision strike -all from both land and aircraft carrier bases. The system's objectives include an air vehicle combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles with a weapons payload of 4,500 pounds, electronic warfare support and an integrated synthetic aperture radar. The vehicles are designed to survive in a high threat environment and feature beyond-line-of-sight network connectivity for global operations. This effort will culminate in operational experimentation and an assessment that will explore the capabilities of the X-47B in realistic mission scenarios.

Northrop Grumman Corporation used a series of low-speed wind tunnel tests to successfully validate the aerodynamic design of the X-47B unmanned combat aerial vehicle it is developing for the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) Concept Demonstration Program. The tests, which used a high-fidelity scale model, were completed ahead of schedule on 22 September 2004. They were conducted at Northrop Grumman's low-speed wind tunnel in Hawthorne, Calif. as part of the company's $1.04 billion contract for the operational assessment phase of the J-UCAS Concept Demonstration Program. The test data gathered from more than 750 test runs confirmed the excellent low-speed stability and control characteristics of the X-47B design. These characteristics are fundamental to X-47B's success in an aircraft carrier environment that requires frequent catapult launches and arrested recoveries.

The low-speed tests were the first in a series of wind tunnel tests planned under the J-UCAS operational assessment program to characterize the X-47B's low and high-speed flight dynamics and to assess its overall flight performance.

By June 2005 Northrop Grumman had started construction of its X-47B Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) aircraft. Production took place in the St. Louis, Mo., manufacturing facility of Northrop Grumman's teammate, GKN Aerospace. GKN is responsible for both the design and fabrication of the X-47B's forward fuselage. Final assembly of the first X-47B began later in the summer of 2005 at Northrop Grumman's Palmdale, Calif. facility.

Northrop Grumman's J-UCAS program is led by the company's Integrated Systems sector. Other major industry teammates include Lockheed Martin Corporation and Pratt & Whitney. GKN Aerospace is the aerospace operation of GKN plc, one of the world's largest engineering companies. GKN Aerospace has more than 6,000 employees in 15 "centers of manufacturing excellence" around the globe. The company specializes in the supply of lightweight-metallic and high-performance composite structures, transparency systems and equipment, and engineering services to prime airframe manufacturers. GKN Aerospace is the world leader in the production of composite assemblies for airframes and engines, in specialist metallic processes, and in the manufacturing of advanced cockpit transparencies and coatings.

On October 20, 2005 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Northrop Grumman Corp., Integrated Systems Sector, San Diego, Calif., $56,485,853 to continue the X-47B portion of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems' (J-UCAS) demonstration program. The award funded the first 11 months of a revised program plan that includes full carrier suitability testing and mission functionality demonstrations including electronic support measures and multi-ship operations, and reduces the number of aircraft to be built from three to two. This agreement replaced the agreement awarded August 18, 2004, and covered the X-47B program as it transitions to Joint Program Office management at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The X-47 portion of the program will combine advanced air vehicle hardware, including integrated sensors, communication, and navigation equipment with the J-UCAS Common Operating System to demonstrate the capabilities of the J-UCAS system in realistic mission scenarios.

X-47B flight demonstrations will begin in 2007 at a West Coast test site followed by catapult launches and arrested landings planned to occur at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, Patuxent River, Maryland.

The X-47B made a successful first flight in February 2011 and subsequently went to NAS Patuxent River to undergo shore-based carrier suitability testing in preparation for sea trials in 2013. In FY13, the Navy planned to achieve UCAS carrier demonstration objectives. In FY14, the Navy planned to achieve probe & drogue (USN style) and boom/receptacle (USAF style) Autonomous Aerial Refueling (AAR) demonstration.

On 17 May 2013, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) begun touch and go landing operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).

On 14 May 2013, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) completed its first ever carrier-based catapult launch from USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) off the coast of Virginia. The unmanned aircraft launched from the deck of George H.W. Bush at 11:18 AM. It executed several planned low approaches to the carrier and safely transited across the Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, after a 65-minute flight. Prior to the catapult launch, the UCAS test team also conducted deck-handling and ship-integration testing to demonstrate the capability to safely operate the X-47B in the dynamic, unforgiving environment of an aircraft carrier flight deck. Following the successful launch, the X-47B aircraft was expected to fly approaches to the ship multiple times and eventually land on the pitching flight deck.

The X-47B successfully conducted the first ever Autonomous Aerial Refueling (AAR) of an unmanned aircraft 22 April 2015, completing the final test objective under the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System demonstration program. The ability to autonomously transfer and receive fuel in flight will increase the range and flexibility of future unmanned aircraft platforms, ultimately extending carrier power projection.

While flying off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, the X-47B connected to an Omega K-707 tanker aircraft and received over 4,000 pounds of fuel using the Navy's probe-and-drogue method. During the test, the X-47B exchanged refueling messages with a government-designed Refueling Interface System (RIS) aboard the tanker. The aircraft autonomously maneuvered its fixed refueling probe into the tanker's drogue, also known as the basket, the same way a Navy pilot would refuel a manned aircraft.

This testing helps solidify the concept that future unmanned aircraft can perform standard missions like aerial refueling and operate seamlessly with manned aircraft as part of the Carrier Air Wing. Over the last few years, the Navy accomplished several significant firsts with the X-47B that showcased the Navy's commitment to unmanned carrier aviation. With the completion of this program, the service continues to develop its future unmanned carrier-based platform, known as UCLASS.

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Page last modified: 05-05-2015 20:12:34 ZULU