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Artist rendering of the X-47B in combat  (Source: Northrop Grumman)

  (Source: Northrop Grumman)

  (Source: Northrop Grumman)
Northtrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy will fly the X-47B in late 2009

The U.S. military is furthering its funding of unmanned vehicles for combat. Just last week, DailyTech reported on the U.S. Army's new SWORDS unmanned robots which roam the Iraqi battlefield carrying M249 machines guns -- and in turn put human soldiers out of harm's way. The military's latest unmanned project leaves the desert behind in order to take to the skies.

The U.S. Navy on Friday awarded Northrop Grumman a six-year, $635.8 million USD contract to further develop the X-47B fixed-wing unmanned air system (UAS). The funding for the Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program will allow Northrop Grumman to conduct take-offs and landings from the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

"We are proud of our legacy of innovation and creativity in developing new combat capabilities and are pleased to be selected to lead this revolutionary advancement in unmanned systems capabilities," said Northrop Grumman's Scott Seymour.

"The UCAS-D award is the culmination of several years of effort with the Navy to show the benefit of melding the capabilities of a survivable, persistent, long-range UCAS with those of the aircraft carrier," continued Northrop Grumman's Gary Ervin. "The UCAS-D program will reduce the risk of eventual integration of unmanned air systems into carrier environments."

Northrop Grumman will build two X47-B aircraft for the U.S. Navy -- the first of which will take flight during the closing months of 2009. The company expects to begin the first carrier landings in 2011.

The X-47B, a sister-ship to the X-47A, has a cruising altitude of 40,000+ feet and a combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles. The stealthy vehicle can carry an internal payload of 4,500 pounds and can travel at high subsonic speeds.

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RE: Love em
By helios220 on 8/6/2007 11:46:28 AM , Rating: 2
While the costs associated with pilot training are significant and by no means to be ignored, the bigger issue with modern military aircraft has been the cost of new aircraft development.

While all rules have exceptions, the general trend for decades has been that each new generation of military aircraft has been more expensive and hence made in fewer numbers than the previous generation. A perfect example being the F-22, undoubtedly superior to any unmanned platform and rated as the top air superiority fighter in the world. Yet all of these capabilities come at a tremendous cost and F-22 orders have been continuously cut by the Air Force to a mere shadow of the original proposed production numbers. The current development of autonomous vehicles is driven by the primary motivator of cost, not performance.

This is not to say that I have anything against the UCAS or unmanned platforms in general, as a former Northrop Grumman employee who worked on the program I have great respect for the platform. However, you will not be seeing the X-47 pulling excessive G's or wowing anyone with its performance characteristics, like all current UCAV offerings it is meant to be a strike aircraft and not an air-superiority fighter. While the X-47B does look sleek and impressive, the reality is that the current generation of UCAV's are designed to fly relatively simple loitering flight plans and put bombs on target, not engage other aircraft in complex autonomous dog fights.

Also addressing others who have seen the movie 'Stealth' a few too many times, these platforms are not completely autonomous and do not make the decision to strike without a human operator.

It is not my intention by any means to rain on anyone’s parade, however there is generally quite a difference between TV/Movies and reality in regards to these aircraft, but that does not make them any less impressive in my opinion.

RE: Love em
By Master Kenobi on 8/6/2007 11:55:06 AM , Rating: 3
Ah, but Helios you are missing the point.

Imagine taking your F-22, taking the pilot out, and sticking him behind a joystick. Now, we get our money's worth. The F-22 is capable of much more than it currently does because the pilot is human and there are precautions that must be taken.

Fighter aircraft could also be built smaller, and cheaper without the need for expensive safety systems, ejection systems, blow off canopy systems, all these customizeable displays and buttons and switches, etc.....

RE: Love em
By helios220 on 8/6/2007 12:15:12 PM , Rating: 4
I never made the point to say that machines are not limited by the characteristics of the humans who operate them. There is an entire field (Human Factors Engineering) devoted to this area, and simply removing the pilot from the cockpit by no means alleviates all of these problems. While there would be a weight reduction by removing certain pilot-centric aircraft subsystems, other different subsystems to accommodate remote / autonomous operation would be added in their place (for now). Furthermore, if you make the argument that an Air Superiority fighter could be more effectively flown remotely, I would not want to be the engineer / human factors engineer responsible for designing the HMIs (human machine interfaces.) It would be a very complex task (although possible) to provide a remote-pilot the necessary perception and feedback to adequately perform air superiority missions, which is a whole different style of flying than strike missions.

Regardless of whether you think I am missing the point, I have worked for Aerospace defense contractors my whole career and I have great hopes for the future of unmanned flight, however my only point is that these aircraft are not the magic solution to the dilemma of increased capabilities versus esclating costs. The primary detractor from aircraft performance is not the pilot, it is cost of the platform plain and simple. I have great hopes for the future development of autonomous vehicles, however there is much hard work to be done by engineers and researchers before we can think about replacing pilots completely.

"Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" -- Homer Simpson
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