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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PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION, Md --- One of the top officers overseeing a secretive drone program at this testing base outside Washington, D.C., predicts a future where unmanned aircraft are used for commercial flights.

"This is the evolution of the next step of unmanned aviation," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Hall tells U.S. News. "There's going to be a time in the future where airplanes are going to be in the sky in the civil realm with nobody in them."

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The possibility that a UAV eventually might haul cargo for private companies stems from the X-47B program that Hall helps oversee at this remote Navy air base in southern Maryland. The futuristic combat drone is in the final stages of testing after successfully taking off from a carrier in May and landing here at "PAX River."

The Northrop Grumman-designed X-47B demonstration plane will be able to take off and land on the same carrier by July, says Hall, the government flight test director for this program, thereby proving the capability of several new technologies that military drones can use to surveil or haul cargo or bombs.

Technicians use arm-mounted hand controllers to share control with other officers and send commands to the X-47B. (Courtesy Department of Defense)

EYE IN THE SKY

Three innocuous lights on the front landing gear of the X-47B act as a window into what the aircraft is thinking and doing, says Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the program manager for the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS. These are particularly important for an aircraft like this one, which unlike other UAVs cannot be directly controlled in-flight with a remote throttle and joystick.

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The X-47B relies solely on pre-programmed tasks for its operations, or what Engdahl calls "task-based autonomy." It knows how to take off from a carrier using the ship's catapult, conduct a mission and line up in a landing pattern with manned planes and eventually drop its hook onto the carrier's "arresting cables."

Flight crews on the deck of an aircraft carrier handle the X-47B just as they would any other fighter in the Navy arsenal, such as an F-18 Hornet. But unlike those fighters, there is no pilot in the cockpit to relay information to these crews. That's where the lights mounted to the X-47B front landing gear take over.

 

A red light means the X-47B is waiting for someone to take control and give it commands. A blue light indicates someone below decks, such as a mission operator, is controlling the aircraft while it's on the carrier runway.

A green light means one of the "hand controllers" on the carrier deck is controlling the vehicle. These arm-mounted gadgets are yet another futuristic component of this program, in which multiple people on deck can pass control back and forth to one another through high-tech equipment mounted on their arms.

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It's important to know what computations are going on inside the aircraft and who is giving it commands, says Engdahl. When the lights come on, that's a signal that the plane is ready for flight.

Program officials advertise it as a cheaper, safer and more efficient alternative to piloted aircraft, mirroring the arguments made by other drone proponents. The X-47B goes one step further by removing pilots from the equation altogether.

Other UAVs, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reapers, are referred to as "remote piloted aircraft," in which an operator at a central headquarters pilots the UAV much like using a military-grade flight simulator. The X-47B, instead, does all of these functions by itself, including responding to mistakes.

A Navy landing signal officer is tasked with guiding from the deck a plane to a carrier runway, offering the pilot instructions on increasing power or reducing speed. (Fans of Top Gun will recognize the phrase "Call the ball," from the LSO in the opening scene.)

For the X-47B, an LSO has a trigger mechanism in which it can instruct the UAV to "wave off" an unsafe landing. The X-47B knows then to abort the landing, circle around and try again.

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