US Navy drone makes first unmanned landing on carrier deck
Bat-winged X-47B unmanned aircraft makes flawless first landing on deck of US aircraft carrier, paving way for long-range missions
Agence France-Presse aboard the USS George H.W. Bush
A bat-winged drone touched down smoothly on the deck of a US aircraft carrier on Wednesday, the first such landing for an unmanned aircraft.
The US Navy's X-47B floated down toward the carrier USS George H.W. Bush and then caught an arresting wire on its tail hook, bringing it to a stop in a textbook landing.
"You saw the future today," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters afterward.
The experimental plane had taken off about an hour earlier from the Patuxent River naval air station in Maryland before arriving at the carrier about 130 kilometres off the Virginia coast at about 1.40pm local time.
Naval pilots require years of training to learn how to land a fighter jet on a carrier floating at sea, one of the most daunting tasks in aviation.
But Wednesday's unprecedented landing by an unmanned plane showed that sophisticated computer software could perform the same task, guiding a robotic aircraft safely onto the deck of a ship at sea.
It also would pave the way for the US to launch unmanned aircraft without the need to obtain permission from other countries to use their bases.
The touch down by the unmanned plane, dubbed "salty dog" by the navy, represented a new era in naval flight, 102 years since a biplane made the first arrested landing on a ship.
Escorted by two F-18 fighter jets, the grey X-47B was perfectly aligned with the carrier deck as it made its descent, readjusting its position automatically with a GPS navigational system installed in the aircraft and on the carrier below.
In contrast to older model drones such as the Predator and Reaper, the X-47B can fly with more autonomy and does not require flight operators to exert constant step-by-step direction using a joystick.
In Wednesday's test, the plane calculated on its own when to put its wheels down.
As the drone made its initial approach, there was a final precaution to test the aircraft. The landing officer on the carrier issued digital instructions to call off the landing, and the aircraft pulled up and gained altitude, circling above the ship.
As planned, the drone then came in for a second approach, gliding in gracefully and catching the arresting line in a flawless performance.
Rear Admiral Mat Winter, head of the navy 's unmanned aviation programme, called it an event for the "history books", but said the successful outcome came as no surprise after years of research and testing.
"What you saw today was a major visual demonstration, but we've been demonstrating and achieving technology maturation in the laboratory, in the models and the simulations," Winter said.
"We knew we were going to touch down x number of inches past the second wire, the hook was going to bounce x number of feet and that the hook was going to engage the third [wire]."
The X-47B had already successfully taken off from a carrier in a catapult launch on May 14.
The navy envisages the tailless plane playing a central role in all air wings aboard carriers, which now rely on manned fighter jets and helicopters.
The successful arrested landing clears the way for the navy to press ahead with the programme and to invite bids from industry for production.
The drones, which are not due to be operational until 2019, will carry out surveillance as well as strike missions.
The X-47B, which is about 12 metres long with a wingspan of 19 metres, can reach subsonic speeds and fly at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.
Unlike the Predator, which is slower and has a more limited range of 675 nautical miles (1,250 kilometres), the X-47B can fly 2,100 nautical miles before refueling, allowing it to potentially carry out long-range bombing raids.
The experimental prototype, which looks like a smaller version of the B-2 bomber, was developed by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman at a cost of about US$1.4 billion.