Navy: Glitch In X-47B Test Only Proves Unmanned Aircraft’s Reliability


A malfunction during the Navy’s high-profile test flight of its X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System showed that the drone can operate in adverse conditions, service officials said.

The tailless, airborne autonomous vehicle landed on the naval aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush for the first time July 10, paving the way for future use of unmanned aerial vehicles in carrier operations.

“It was nothing short of amazing,” Rear Adm. Mat Winter, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, said during a July 11 conference call.

Despite its success, concerns were raised regarding the last of three landing  approaches. In it, the aircraft diagnosed a malfunction within its navigation system that caused it to divert its course to Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

This incident proved to naval officials that the X-47B was able to function autonomously.

“You have to design it with unprecedented levels of reliability and system safety,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager. “Everything went right.”

In this case, one of the three navigational sub-systems failed, according to post-flight data. “The other two [subsystems] realized that. It exercised its already pre-planned logic and identified that sub-system anomaly, provided that indication to the mission operator who then made the appropriate choice to follow the procedures in the test plan,” said Engdahl.

From the perspective of its managers, the system was designed for scenarios including off-nominal behavior, he added.

“On every test, we have some type of anomalous behavior,” Winter added.

Both officials agreed that they are looking for consistency in upcoming tests.

The Northrop Grumman-built aircraft flew for the first time less than a year ago at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Although there was potential for technical difficulties associated with such a project, the aircraft has seen many successes. “What stuck with me was the ease with which everything happened,” Engdahl added.

The aircraft has laid claim to several achievements. On May 14, it became the first unmanned aircraft to be catapult launched from a carrier. Just three  days later, it performed touch-and-go landings on the Bush.

Although this is the final phase of the demonstrator program, it was the first  of three scheduled tests with the second scheduled for July 15.

As for the future of the program: “We’re not in a rush to do anything. Everything is methodical,” said Winter. At this point, there are no further objectives that are critical for the program, said Engdahl.

Having proven that a UAV can autonomously take off and land on an aircraft carrier, the Navy will focus on its competition for an armed, carrier-based drone.

That program is the unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike, or UCLASS. “The requirements for the follow-up program of record UCLASS are to provide two 24/7 orbits off a single carrier at tactically significant ranges,” said Winter.

Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have indicated they will pursue the UCLASS contract. Analysts have said the success of Northrop Grumman with the X-47B may provide it with an edge.

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