The Unmanned Combat Air System demonstration is many hours of research from actual combat readiness. With the jet launch accomplished the project's developers now must perfect a safe return of the craft to a landing aboard a ship rather than to a land-based facility.
Just as unmanned airborne vehicles and later unmanned airborne systems have captured the imagination of military procurers across the world, potentially slicing millions off defense budgets, the seaborne launch and landing of unmanned craft is full of possibilities, analysts say.
Demand for unmanned airborne aircraft has surged worldwide amid concern over costs and human casualties of combat through conventional weapons such as human-piloted war aircraft. Research and development has triggered competition and led to multiple versions entering the market.
Defense industry media said naval aviation was set to undergo phenomenal change after the demonstration aboard the USS George H. W. Bush off the coast of Virginia.
Defense News called it "the most important milestone so far" in a planned seven-year, $1.5 billion effort to prove the technologies associated with building and fielding an unmanned, carrier-based jet aircraft and a type of aircraft that many see as underpinning the future of carrier-based air.
The X-47B launched this week is one of two aircraft built by Northrop Grumman for the Navy's UCAS demonstration program.
While X-47B is for non-operational use, its precision navigation algorithms will be used to create the first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft, DailyTech.com said.
The unmanned aircraft executed several planned low approaches to the carrier and safely transited across the Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., after a 65-minute flight, the Navy said in a news release.
"Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier," Naval Air Forces Commander Vice Adm. David Buss said.
Buss called the launch a "watershed event" in naval aviation, adding he expects that decades from now, a future "Air Boss" will have a picture of the X-47B launching from Bush behind his or her desk just as he has a picture of aviation pioneer Eugene Ely's first landing on the deck of a ship in 1911 behind his desk.
In another important first for the UCAS-D program, the team demonstrated the ability to precisely navigate the X-47B within the controlled airspace around an aircraft carrier at sea and seamlessly pass control of the air vehicle from a "mission operator" aboard the carrier to one located in the mission test control center at NAS Patuxent River for landing.
"The X-47B is capable of operation from a carrier, hand-off from one mission control station to another, flight through the national airspace, and recovery at another location without degradation in safety or precision," said Matt Funk, lead test engineer for the Navy UCAS program.
The team earlier 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.
Over the next few weeks, the X-47B will fly approaches to the ship multiple times and eventually land on the pitching flight deck, said Navy UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahl.
Additional shore-based testing will take place at NAS Patuxent River before its final carrier-based arrested landing demonstration later in the summer, the Navy said.
The UCAS test flights are expected to wrap up by the end of 2013 before the program merges into the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System. UCLASS aims to develop an operational carrier-based jet able to perform strike missions. Several competitors, including Northrop Grumman and Boeing, are expected to vie for the UCLASS contract, Defense News said on its website.