Killer Drone Testing Aboard Navy Flattop ‘a Big Science Project’
USS ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ is the latest flattop to launch and land the X-47B
Pratt & Whitney turbofan whining, tires slamming on the steel deck in puffs of white smoke, the X-47B killer drone prototype arrived on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on Nov. 9.
Over the next several days the kite-shaped X-47B launched, landed and taxied in increasingly complex wind conditions, racking up test data and bringing the Navy closer to deploying the world’s first jet-powered robotic bombers.
Lots more tests are still to come.
1,092 feet long and displacing 104,600 tons of water, the 29-year-old, nuclear-powered Roosevelt is the third of the Navy’s 10 flattops to test the pair of X-47B drones that Northrop Grumman built under a roughly billion-dollar contract starting in 2007.
After six years of design, production and ground testing, the pair of 62-foot-wingspan drones—known to the Navy as “Salty Dogs” and to Northrop engineers as “Doritos”—took to the sea in December 2012.
First one of the Doritos was lifted by crane onto the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman in Norfolk, Virginia, to test its ability to maneuver around the ship’s five-acre flight deck, remotely controlled by a sailor with a wrist-mounted joystick.
In May a Dorito blasted into the air from the USS George H.W. Bush off of Maryland, boosted by the flattop’s steam-powered catapult. And in July one of the 22-ton drones landed autonomously, snagging one of Bush’s arrestor cables in an historic first.
Preserving the Doritos
The current trials aboard Roosevelt near the East Coast involve steering the ship into more complicated wind conditions—faster and off-center—in order to ensure the X-47B’s software can still safely launch and land the robot. “At this point it’s a big science project,” says one contractor on board the flattop for the tests.
Much more testing remains before the Doritos can retire and the Navy replaces them with fully combat-capable drones sometime around 2020. Northrop, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Atomics are vying for that contract.
The Navy had planned to decommission the X-47Bs following the July launches, but decided at the last minute that it would be better to keep testing the ‘bots in order to ease the transition to the combat-ready drone.
A Navy briefing slide obtained by War is Boring this summer plots out another two years of rigorous trials for the two Doritos. After the current trials aboard Bush, an X-47B will embark on the USS Harry S. Truman in late 2014 and another, as yet unspecified flattop for a final series of experiments in 2015.
By then Northrop and the Navy expect to have checked off several other important achievements: programming the X-47Bs to autonomously refuel in mid-air and also blending one of the drones into a full air wing of 70 or more manned planes and helicopters.
“The Navy remains steadfast in its commitment to maturing today’s technologies,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, promising “a realistic path to tomorrow’s affordable, flexible unmanned carrier aviation capabilities.”
But for now, prepping the fleet for combat-ready killer drones is all a big science project.