Combat UAV Moves Closer To Full Autonomy
By Paul Kruczkowski, Editor
The Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) demonstrator, capable of autonomous flight and chock-full of RF and microwave payloads, made its first land-based catapult launch on November 29 at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Patuxent River, Md. This milestone was a critical step in verifying the aircraft’s ability to handle the stress of a catapult launch, and in ultimately integrating the UCAS into an aircraft carrier flight deck environment. Another X-47B demonstrator was craned onto the deck of USS Harry S. Truman in Norfolk, Va., the same week, in order to test the telemetry and communication systems required for flight deck, elevator, and hangar bay maneuvering.
One interesting aspect of both the catapult launch and the flight deck testing is a new wireless, handheld device called a Control Display Unit (CDU), also designed by Northrop Grumman. The CDU will allow the deck operator to wirelessly control engine thrust, nose wheel steering, and brakes. Just as a pilot follows the director’s hand signals to move on the deck, the deck operator will use the CDU to move the X-47B quickly and precisely into the catapult for launch, or out of the landing area following recovery.
These tests set the stage for carrier testing at sea, including the highly anticipated first catapult launch and retrieve of the autonomous unmanned air system in mid-2013. The software that will make this all possible was tested earlier this year in a manned F-18, which performed carrier landings completely under software control. The software/system utilizes precision GPS installed on both the X-47B and the carrier, and provides a glide slope path to guide the aircraft onto the ship.
As I reported in my article on UAV and electronic payload trends (in our Electronic Military & Defense magazine, the X-47B is a glimpse into the future of unmanned combat aircraft. Its autonomous flight capability, including autonomous refueling, will greatly increase the reach of the carrier-based force, providing a greater standoff distance between the target and the aircraft carrier from which the X-47B is launched. The X-47B will be able to deliver up to 4,500 lbs. of smart munitions and return to the carrier on its own, without endangering the life of a pilot.
Since these two aircraft are demonstration units designed to prove the concept of carrier-based autonomous flight, the RF and microwave sensors are not the primary focus — at least not yet. I would expect a production version of the X-47B to require advanced synthetic aperture radar with ground moving target indicator, electronic support measures, various communications and data links, conformal electro-optic day/night cameras, and SIGINT equipment, which should provide plenty of opportunities for those involved in electronic payload system design.