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.
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."