The Navy's bat-winged X-47B drone made history Wednesday when it became the first autonomous piloted aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier. The aircraft is not flown remotely by a pilot, but flies missions based on GPS coordinates input into its guidance system.
On Wednesday the X-47B executed what is formally known as an "arrested landing" on the deck of the carrier George H.W. Bush, which was at sea off the coast of Virginia.
Like other aircraft that land on aircraft carriers, the X-47B was equipped with a hook that it used to catch a wire on the carrier's deck that enabled it to come to full stop.
After the initial landing, the aircraft was launched off the carrier using the ship's catapult. The X-47B then executed another arrested landing.
The aircraft had made history in May when it was launched off the deck of the same carrier; that made it the first autonomous aircraft to be catapulted off of a carrier. It then executed a series of "touch and go" procedures on the carrier before flying to the Naval Air Station at Patuxent, Md.
Unlike Predator drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles that are flown remotely by pilots, the X47-B is an autonomous aircraft. GPS coordinates are input into its computer guidance system to fly it to pre-determined locations. The landing on the carrier was particularly challenging because the bat-winged craft does not have a tail.
"By evolving and integrating new technology like the X-47B and the unmanned aircraft to follow, carriers will remain relevant throughout their 50-year lifespan," said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a statement.
Mabus was aboard the Bush to witness the historic landing, as was Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations. "The event today was a miraculous technological feat done by the things that make us the greatest Navy in the world," said Greenert.
The Navy has two X-47B's, both demonstration aircraft, which are serving as test vehicles for future Navy autonomous aircraft that will be capable of flying 24-hour surveillance missions launched from a carrier.
"It's the first step in developing an unmanned carrier base platform," said a Navy official. "This will help us inform the "U Class" aircraft " that the Navy hopes will complement its carrier air wings.
"It really eliminates the human factor that is the limiting factor of our aircraft," said the official who explained that a pilot's flight hours can be limited by factors such as constraints and physical endurance.