Take the X-47B experimental killer drone made by Northrop Grumman, the first drone intended to fly off an aircraft carrier. At the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space convention outside Washington, Northrop and the Navy and unveiled new details about the tailless, triangular plane and their schedule to get it flying off a carrier. Rule number one of the X-47B: it’s not “remotely piloted.”
Put the phrase “remotely piloted” out of your mind, says Janis Pamiljans, a Northrop vice president who handles the company’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) portfolio. When it gets on board an aircraft carrier, it’s going to be controlled by a “mouse click,” Pamiljans says. The click of a mouse will turn on the engines. Another will get it to taxi. Keep clicking, and the plane will “take off and come home.”
No joysticks and no pilot controlling it from a metal box somewhere. Just push-button operations and 3.4 million lines of software code and functionality to control the X-47B. “That’s about it,” Pamiljans deadpans.
Not that that’s an understatement or anything. Pamiljans’ counterpart from the Navy, Capt. Jaime Engdahl, tells reporters assembled for a briefing on the future of the plane — which took its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base in February — that if there’s one thing he wants to impress upon the crowd is that there’s something about landing a plane on a ship at sea “that’s special.” It’s not just a floating airstrip, it’s a delicate, precise minuet. And that means the autonomous aspects of the plane have to be suited to the carrier’s crew.
“How we integrate the unmanned vehicle, maneuver it to taxi, its stealth characteristics — it’s a big learning thing,” Engdahl says.
That’s why, by “early to mid 2013,” the plane’s program managers will be simulating carrier operations for a “seamless integration,” using Nimitz-class carrier decks at Pautuxent River, Md., to get both the X-47B and the carriers ready for one another. They’ll be practicing launch operations, “hard” landings, datalink downloads from the plane to the crews, everything. Taxi controllers will have display units mounted on their arms that send radio frequencies to direct the plane across the decks.
The schedule for the plane has slipped: the Navy used to anticipate carrier launches for the X-47B as early as this year. As the schedule stands now, the last round of tests will occur by 2014, when the plane will practice mid-air refueling and successful landing back on a carrier — another mouse click, one that effectively means, “X-47B, find your tanker,” Pamiljans says.
Necessarily, that’s going to mean “a high level of redundancy and reliability,” Engdahl says, or the program’s going to be a crash-prone disaster. There are only two X-47Bs in existence, and Northrop doesn’t plan to build any more.
The one thing they’re not going to test? Weapons. Nothing about the next several years’ worth of testing will involve weapons mounts or releases, Engdahl and Pamiljans both insist. That’s despite the fact that the plane can carry up to 4500 lbs. worth of payload in its twin weapons bays. And that it’s supposed to be a killer. (Even if it moonlights as a stadium-ready rock-n-roller in the video above, produced by Northrop.)
Both Engdahl or Pamiljans accordingly ducked a question about how the plane’s boasted autonomy will handle any weapons releases. Everyone who fears Skynet generally blanches at the idea of robots firing weapons on their own. But the X-47B will be “on autopilot 100 percent of the time,” Engdahl says. Nothing left to do but welcome our robot overlords.