New Military UAV May Lead to Commercial Drone Flights

The X-47B may usher in a new era of public drones following successful testing this summer.

The X-47B unmanned aircraft during sea trials aboard the USS George HW Bush in May 2013. (Department of Defense)

The X-47B unmanned aircraft during sea trials aboard the USS George HW Bush in May 2013.

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The ability to land itself is among the capabilities unique to this drone. No data link exists that would be powerful enough for a remote controller to send instructions to a UAV in time for something as precise as landing on a carrier. There are eight total technologies that the X-47B will transfer to future aircraft, including a data link to provide commands, stealth technologies, aerodynamics and improved navigation.

But don't expect to see the X-47B in a combat role. It serves only as the vehicle for testing these new capabilities. Engdahl says the design will likely be retired after testing concludes.

The technology created for the X-47B will be passed on to future unmanned carrier-based aircraft – and even some manned ones – to conduct combat strike missions, or aerial surveillance.

Future versions of this drone will likely look different, he says, much as early NASA vessels like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo improved upon the last for the needs of a new mission.

THIS ISN'T 'STEALTH'

Before drawing invidious comparisons to certain Hollywood movies starring Jessica Biel, it's important to note that this craft will not short-circuit and start making nefarious decisions for itself, officials say.

"It's not self-aware. It doesn't have logic," explains Engdahl. "It's actually the opposite. This is the first time that you have an air vehicle that the only thing it will do is what you tell it to do."

There are programs in place in case the signal to the X-47B goes down, including returning to a pre-designated location and waiting there for the signal to return, much like the procedures for piloted planes.

"It's an interesting paradigm shift because pilots by nature are random in the way that they fly the aircraft. All of us fly the aircraft in a different way. This vehicle is programmed so that it does it the same way every time," Engdahl says.

Neither Engdahl nor Hall would comment on the X-47B's ability to deter a cyber attack, other than to say that all data links are encrypted and that the aircraft is safe. Engdahl added that electromagnetic space around ships such as a carrier is "very severe," prompting developers to create planes that are much more hardened to be able to survive in that kind of "high-radiation environment."

THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS

The effects of sequestration are immediately visible at bases across the country. The pass office at the main gate of PAX River bears large signs signalling it will be closed every Friday from July 8 to September 30 -- the dates during which Defense Secretary Hagel said almost all civilian employees will endure 11 days of furloughs. Staff, such as in public affairs, will also likely close the bulk of their offices on Fridays during those weeks so that other services -- such as security and emergency responders -- can draw down their numbers in kind.

But the X-47B has so far been safe from the across-the-board mandatory cuts. Its total program cost was estimated at $813 million as of January 2012, Business Insider reports.

"We haven't seen any direct impacts due to sequestration," says Engdahl. "It's mostly because we're at the end of the demonstration in execution and we're moving along."

However, the next stages of testing this technology may not be so lucky. Sequestration creates an environment where turning tested technologies over to another program within the military becomes more difficult, Engdahl says.

A team of top-flight engineers and testers was amassed for this program, says Lt. Cmdr. Hall, which unlike some other aerial programs can only settle for the very best components.

"Any plane that has an 'X' in front of it is always surrounded by the best and brightest team you can assemble," he tells U.S. News, standing in the hangar where the two X-47Bs are housed. The military uses that letter to denote experimental aircraft.

"This really is a pure engineering and flight test organization, so I have ... the best Northrup Grumman guys over there and the best government guys over there," he says.