Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to watch a video of the X-47B's seven back-to-back carrier touch-and-go landings, or go to AviationWeek.com/video
The level of precision and repeatability the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) achieved during at-sea landings and touch-and-go trials indicates the autonomy used to prove this unmanned aircraft's ability to operate on an aircraft carrier could have implications for future manned Navy aircraft and, possibly, commercial airliners.
“The system is extremely repeatable,” says U.S. Navy Capt. Jaime Engdahl, UCAS program manager, of touch-and-goes and landings of the X-47B during flight trials.
That precision and repeatability could provide the Navy with a tool for other, manned, fixed-wing aircraft that operate on the carrier. Pilots have to conduct hours of training to remain current for landings and bolters, a touch-and-go that occurs if the pilot misses the arresting wires on the carrier deck, forcing an emergency takeoff. Unmanned technology advocates say autonomous landing systems such as that used for the X-47B could be retrofitted onto other manned aircraft, reducing the cost of hours of training for pilots, while increasing safety.
The most obvious near-term candidate for such a system would be the Lockheed Martin F-35C, which is still in development and has not yet achieved a carrier landing. The Navy is also developing the Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye and exploring options for a C-2 Greyhound replacement to shuttle cargo and passengers onto carriers.
Beyond carrier aviation, unmanned technology advocates also posit that such a system could be used for commercial applications. The end result could be a more efficient air traffic system that allows for reduced distances in safe separation among aircraft on approach. And, it could permit more efficient stacking of commercial airliners as they await landing clearances. Obviously such an application would require further testing and a significant turnabout in civil aviation policy globally. But, these advocates point out that the maturity of the technology sheds new light on the art of the possible.
“The reliability of the aircraft to hit the spot on the deck is almost impossible to repeat with a man in the cockpit” at the controls, says one industry official.