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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Engdahl adds that he always underestimates the public interest of this aircraft, which has appeared on the cover of Popular Science magazine.
"We're handing the U.S. Navy ... the technology to be able to do whatever they need to," Engdahl says. "If it's a pivot to the Pacific and a focus on anti-access area denial, then the entire idea of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles is very beneficial."