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X-47B in Flight  (Source: Northrop)

X-47 from Below  (Source: Northrop)
The flight is part of expanded envelope for the program

The military is using robots for bomb discovery/disposal and for carrying equipment for forces in the field. The military is also moving to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help patrol skies and keep human soldiers safe from unnecessary risks.
The last new UAV we talked about for the Navy was back in December of 2010 when the X-47B demonstrator first appeared. That unmanned X-47B demonstrator has hit a new milestone that is very important. The demonstrator has made its first flight with its landing gear retracted in cruise configuration.
During the flight, which took place from Edwards Air Force Base, the precision navigation hardware and software was validated. This is the software and hardware that will allow the fighter to land on the deck of a moving ship.

"Last week's flight gave us our first clean look at the aerodynamic cruise performance of the X-47B air system…and it is proving out all of our predictions," said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "Reaching this critical test point demonstrates the growing maturity of the air system, and its readiness to move to the next phase of flight testing."

The flight was part of the expanded envelop of the first two X-47B aircraft that were built by Northrop Grumman for the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program. The X-47B is set to start carrier testing in 2012.
The design of the X-47B allows for attack missions with low observability, and the aircraft uses no tail, looking like a combination of the F-117 Nighthawk and the B-2 Spirit.

Source: Northrop Grumman

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Dog fights?
By Cr0nJ0b on 10/11/2011 2:36:21 PM , Rating: 5
It looks like most of these drone are designed for simple attack type missions and scouting missions. I would guess the 'B' designation is for bomber?

My questions is...Would it be possible to build a fighter style drone, that could be used in Air Superiority type missions? It would seem that without the need to engineer for a fragile human in the cockpit, that you could make a plane that was much faster, and much, much more maneuverable then the best fighters in service today. In a dog fight, you could push the engineering tolerances of the airframe without the worry of a pilot blacking out.

Just a thought...I'm sure it's been thought before...

RE: Dog fights?
By bug77 on 10/11/2011 2:40:11 PM , Rating: 2
Would it be possible to build a fighter style drone, that could be used in Air Superiority type missions?

It would, but its controls would need to be much more sophisticated. Once they figure out scouts and bombers, the next logical step would be fighters. But not just yet.

RE: Dog fights?
By titanmiller on 10/11/2011 2:55:02 PM , Rating: 3
The difference is that air-to-air is an extremely dynamic environment with dozens of tactics that are coordinated among the wingmen depending on what is happening. I'm not saying that software couldn't be written to do this, but it is much more difficult than dropping a GBU on a target.

RE: Dog fights?
By lightfoot on 10/11/2011 3:06:21 PM , Rating: 3
The real issue has very little to do with the complexities of air combat (a computer can and does preform this task far better than any human is capable of.)

The real problem is a question of accountability. Once you give full control over to the computer (including fire control) who is ultimately responsible for the people that that machine will kill. Is the operator responsible? The programmer? The maintenance technician? The commander? The President?

Eventually a mistake will be made, and our society requires that someone be held accountable.

The technical problems are trivial in comparison.

RE: Dog fights?
By Flunk on 10/11/2011 3:30:18 PM , Rating: 2
That is completely untrue, writing software of the complexity required to outperform human pilots in a live-fire situation is extremely complicated. This is not like writing an AI simulation of flying an aircraft. This software would have to be able to pilot, identify, aim and operate weapon systems with close to a 100% margin of error.

That sort of high-accuracy system is absurdly more difficult to design than the current ones that use operators to control the weapons. This thing would have to react quickly and accurately in every conceivable situation. The design process would need multiple fail-safes, redundant testing and a lot of accountability. It's a big task. Testing alone would take years.

I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it's not easy by any stretch of the imagination.

RE: Dog fights?
By Flunk on 10/11/2011 3:31:05 PM , Rating: 2
That should be almost 0% margin of error, for some reason my mind flipped the terms around.

RE: Dog fights?
By Amiga500 on 10/11/2011 4:18:08 PM , Rating: 2
pilot, identify, aim and operate weapon systems

The computers already do all of those things.

It just presents them to the pilot for final decisions.

So yeah, decision making algorithms would be needed - however, a combat pilot thinks along a surprisingly single-track train of thought. Identify your relative advantages over the other guy and exploit them to the max - those advantages may be situational, they may be airframe performance or they may be weapon performance.

A computer would actually be able to perform this task much better than a human as well. Parallel consideration of multiple options and picking the best one.

If a human had to play a computer at chess, and the time to make each move was fixed at 0.5 seconds.... guess who'd win?

RE: Dog fights?
By DougF on 10/11/2011 4:51:59 PM , Rating: 2
If a human had to play a computer at chess, and the time to make each move was fixed at 0.5 seconds.... guess who'd win?

Me. I'd move the pieces for the computer and somehow, they'd benefit my position... :-)

RE: Dog fights?
By Elk on 10/11/2011 5:06:45 PM , Rating: 2
Think game AI. And I'm not talking chess which has a finite, very small set of rules and is a very bad example regarding dogfights.

If you can think of just one way to beat the AI then it's going to be exploited to no end.

The same is true here. If there is just one way to shoot down a drone it's going to happen all the time.

A fighter AI can't be 99% or even 99.9% correct. It needs to be 100% and that is almost impossible.

RE: Dog fights?
By mindless1 on 10/12/2011 1:21:25 AM , Rating: 2
Not applicable. In Chess, the game is static and simple enough that humans can program in everything - the computer is only following instructions of course.

In combat roles, by the time you could program the whole thing, your plane is different, the enemy is different, the program is outdated.

The human is still the weaker link but since the computer depends on the human code to function in the first place it's going to have bugs, flaws, and incompleteness.

RE: Dog fights?
By Cr0nJ0b on 10/11/2011 8:00:11 PM , Rating: 3
I wasn't ever really considering an unmanned fighter drone...I was always thinking of a remote controlled plane with a pilot at the helm.

Great feedback, by the way, but I still don't see why the military isn't investing in this area more. It would seem that if the issue is just situational awareness, that's just more avionics, cameras and pilot training. I'm sure that there are more than a few hardened Battlefield 2 pilots willing to give it a try. As I read the responses it just made me think that we are entering a new era, where things like "seat of the pants" flying will be exchanged for other remote pilot abilities that will be learned. I mean if you can surpass the adversary's turn rate by 30% or more with a new design, then maybe that will make way for new tactics that have never been considered...and the only way to learn those tactics would be to start flying them now.

RE: Dog fights?
By mindless1 on 10/12/2011 1:26:00 AM , Rating: 2
I suspect that if we faced a sufficiently advanced enough enemy that we needed any of this tech (or found it cost effective), even if they could not gain control of the craft it would still be trivial to them to use spread spectrum blocking of any RF remote control at least enough to neuter the threat...

maybe not during the first combat but soon enough it would be a priority they solved.

RE: Dog fights?
By lightfoot on 10/12/2011 12:42:06 PM , Rating: 2
The X-47 is not a remote controlled aircraft. It is an autonomous UAV drone. This craft should be able to complete its entire mission under a complete radio blackout.

The X-47 can take off, fly to the target, destroy the target, return and land without any human intervention.

I'm not sure why you think it is remote controlled.

RE: Dog fights?
By mindless1 on 10/12/2011 9:30:10 PM , Rating: 2
Hmm... Maybe you need some sleep, I replied directly to someone who wrote "I wasn't ever really considering an unmanned fighter drone...I was always thinking of a remote controlled plane with a pilot at the helm."

RE: Dog fights?
By lightfoot on 10/12/2011 11:55:32 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe you're right.

I mistook your stance as why it couldn't be done, not why it can be done.

All the talk of Remote Control and Radio Frequency jamming and I missed the part where we were all in agreement.

RE: Dog fights?
By RU482 on 10/12/2011 10:06:38 AM , Rating: 2
Eventually a mistake will be made, and our society requires that someone be held accountable.

what rock are you living under?

RE: Dog fights?
By lightfoot on 10/12/2011 12:37:50 PM , Rating: 2
Is that a joke?

People demand accountability. They just don't take accountability for their own actions.

RE: Dog fights?
By inperfectdarkness on 10/11/2011 3:04:01 PM , Rating: 2
no, the B designator means that it's the second style of prototype. it's still an "x" plane; meaning experimental. far, far from operational readiness. don't be confused. that "B" means essentially the same thing it did during development of the B-1A/B-1B.

we are YEARS from a capability for air-air UAV's. decades even. as was mentioned by others, we need to learn to do the most elementary tasks with UAV's before committing to a high-speed, highly dynamic environment. not to mention that a key part of dogfighting is 360-degree situational awareness (pilot's head on a swivel). some of that "seat of the pants" skill that a pilot acquires from years of cockpit flying simply cannot translate well through a datalink interface.

RE: Dog fights?
By Fritzr on 10/11/2011 3:36:06 PM , Rating: 5
The leading letter is the type designator. The trailing letter is the Mark or variant designator.
X-47B) Model: 47, Class: Experimental, Variant: B (most likely the 3rd variant, but the letter just identifies the specific version)
B-52J) Type: 52, Class: Bomber, Variant: J
P-41 Mustang) Type: 41, Class: Pursuit, Codename: Mustang

While the variant letter usually indicates minor variations from the prototype, The Class/Type identifiers can duplicate pre-1962 designations. For example there are several entirely different F4 aircraft
F-4D Skyray (aka F6)
F-4F Wildcat
F-4U Corsair
F-4 Lightning (variant of the P-38)
F-4 Phantom II (today this is the "real" F4)
Phantom II models include the F-4H, F-4B, F-4C, F-4D, F-4E, F4-EJ, F-4G, RF-4C, F4H-1F(redesignated F-4A), F-4J, F-4N, F-4S, QF-4(target drone), EF-4C(redesignated F-4C Wild Weasel), F-4G Wild Weasel V(note the variant indicator added to Wild Weasel [WW aircraft are Electronic Warfare platforms]) there are likely additional variants of the F-4 Phantom II :) The prototypes were the XF-4H-1 (experimental) & YF-4H-1 (pre-production fighter)

The non-Phantom II F-4s predate the current naming system.

Your question about the drone fighter has come up before. I remember another article (I think it was Daily Tech) about the problems being encountered developing combat drones. So they are in the works :)

RE: Dog fights?
By Smilin on 10/11/2011 4:08:14 PM , Rating: 2
Never knew what that P meant. Thx!

RE: Dog fights?
By DougF on 10/11/2011 4:48:23 PM , Rating: 2
Just to piggyback on your explanation:
The U.S. military uses an MDS (Mission, Design, Series) designation for aircraft. So X-47B equals:
M=Mission (X-experimental)
D=Design Number (47th design)
S=Series (B-second variant)
Note: There are ALWAYS exceptions to the rules, and aircraft can have more than one mission (MC-130H, KC-10, SR-71, etc).
The Design numbers reset to 1 a few years ago, so we could see repeats of numbers from previous aircraft (ala another B-17), but it's unlikely.
Haven't seen an MDS go beyond the "Z"series, though, so no idea what would happen there.

RE: Dog fights?
By borismkv on 10/11/2011 5:43:40 PM , Rating: 2
As a note, SR-71's designation having two letters doesn't refer to dual roles. SR-71s were strict reconnaissance craft. SR stands for Strategic Reconnaissance. It was originally supposed to have the designation of RS-71 (Recon. Mission, Spaceplane airframe), but there was a general that liked Strategic Recon. better, and lobbied to have the name changed. The 71 was because it followed the Original Bomber numbering system (B-70 was the design prior in that group). has all the details on the designation system.

RE: Dog fights?
By rcc on 10/12/2011 5:52:41 PM , Rating: 2
: )

As long as we are sorting everything out... would be P-41 Mustang be related to the P-51 Mustang?

RE: Dog fights?
By Amiga500 on 10/11/2011 4:10:17 PM , Rating: 2
Would it be possible to build a fighter style drone, that could be used in Air Superiority type missions?

Yeah - they are called AIM-9X, AIM-120, R-77, R-73, ASRAAM, MICA, Python... etc etc...

RE: Dog fights?
By sorry dog on 10/12/2011 10:26:55 AM , Rating: 2
I believe if it's a fighter, it's kinda hoped that it can come back to base and be re-used again...and with a AIM-120D being 700k+ it probably should come back to be re-fueled, play a game of chess, and go out and be used again.

...but even with today's best operational tech, even these aren't anywhere close to 100% successful.

RE: Dog fights?
By MrBlastman on 10/12/2011 12:12:36 PM , Rating: 2
I'm totally against the idea of having robotic fighters due to the flexibility that a real pilot in the seat affords.

I'll admit though, in a real pilot versus robotic pilot scenario, say the package was in deep past the FLOT carrying a full bombload and happened to be pinged by a 2 or 4-ship of Migs/Sukhois, the robotic pilot would be far more flexible. The human pilot might turn and run or take a shot, though, if they take a shot, if fired upon themselves they'll have to emergency jettison all their ground ordinance or risk both their own life and the airframe's. A drone though, they can gamble with it as they cost less to begin with--i.e. play chicken with it and see which side wimps out first. The first one to brake from radar cone/lock ends up at the extreme disadvantage (and their slammer will lose radar guidance assuming they haven't gone active yet) reducing the PK.

RE: Dog fights?
By mitchebk on 10/12/2011 12:18:37 PM , Rating: 2
One of the major criticisms of UAVs is the lack of pilot situational awareness. A fighter-type UAV would exacerbate this criticism further. without an extremely high-developed sensor suite that grants a ground controller the same or better capability as a "pilot-in-the-loop", UAVs will be fodder to any 4th-gen air interceptor.

BTW, the "B" is the second variant of the X-47. The "A" variant was a smaller, less-capable demonstrator.

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