Top Navy brass will be focused on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush Wednesday, as the service tries for the first time to land a drone the size of a fighter jet aboard an aircraft carrier.
The experimental aircraft, the X-47B, will take off from Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland and land on the carrier, which is stationed off the coast of Virginia.
While the plane itself will never be used in an official capacity, if successful, the test run will allow the Navy to move forward with its unmanned aerial vehicle program. The Navy wants to use UAVs in a number of different roles, including surveillance, cargo transport and weapons deployment.
In May, the Navy hailed a successful test run where the X-47B was launched from the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush and landed at Patuxent River. It also performed a successful "touch-and-go" landing, where the unit's wheels touched the deck, but continued to fly off the ship, never coming to a complete stop.
According to the Associated Press, the drone will land on the carrier in the same way a fighter jet does – deploying a tailhook that will catch a wire aboard the ship and bring it to a quick stop.
The X-47B differs from other drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, by being fully autonomous. While other drones are piloted by an operator on the ground, the X-47B is fully programmed to lift off, conduct missions and land on its own.
Last month, Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System, told U.S. News the aircraft operates on what he calls "task-based autonomy."
"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," Engdahl said.
The $1.4 billion aircraft will likely be retired after testing concludes, with the technology passed down to future iterations of Navy drones.