The U.S. Navy stepped closer to the first carrier landing of an autonomous, unmanned aircraft following the July 2 carrier touchdown of a manned F/A-18D surrogate aircraft. It is equipped with the same avionics and software planned for the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft. The X-47B made its first flight on February 4 this year, and its first carrier landing is scheduled for 2013.
The recent surrogate test involved several launches and recoveries from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, at sea in the western Atlantic off Virginia. The challenge was to automate flight procedures and communications between the aircraft and ship, traditionally performed visually and by voice communications between pilots and air operations personnel on final approach.
To support an autonomous air vehicle, shipboard equipment was modified so that the vehicle, the mission operator, the landing-signal officer and the carrier’s air-traffic-control facilities communicated on the same digital network. Networking and transmission of precision GPS navigation data were provided via the Rockwell Collins tactical-targeting network using high-speed, low-latency datalink.
Navair said its UCAS Aviation/Ship Integration Facility at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland, prepared for the event through a steady build-up of software simulations and flight tests. Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-23 provided the F/A-18 surrogate aircraft. Testers also employed a King Air Beech 300, operated by Airtec of California, Md., that flew in the vicinity of the aircraft carrier to test mission management, command and control, communications, air traffic control and navigation functions between X-47B software and the ship. The Navy is using the King Air to test system functionality that does not require actually landing on the ship.