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US Navy robot stealth fighter in first unmanned carrier landings

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Vids The last of the great barriers has fallen: an unmanned aircraft has successfully made autonomous arrested landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It's now plain that robots are not just as good as human pilots - they are as good as the best human pilots.

As most regular Reg readers will be aware, the X-47B project kicked off back in 2004 under the auspices of the Pentagon mad-scientist asylum, DARPA, and was subsequently taken on by the US Navy. It is a demonstrator effort (of just two aircraft) intended to show that a stealthy, tailless, unmanned jet can operate from a US Navy carrier.

Carrier operations - in particular, arrested landings - are generally regarded as some of the most difficult flying that human pilots ever do. Tailhook aviators are generally regarded, and not just by themselves, as an elite within the worldwide corps of combat fast jet pilots - themselves the creme de la creme of pilots in general.

As the years have gone by it has become clear that robots can not only fly a plane along in the sky: they can also make takeoffs and landings, though certain organisations - notably the US airforce - still to this day typically insist on having human pilots in control even when the aircraft themselves are unmanned. In recent times it has also become evident that autonomous robotic systems can perform other tricky feats such as air-to-air refuelling, delivery of underslung supplies by helicopter, etc.

But the big one - making a trap on a carrier deck - had still not yet been done by an unmanned aircraft. Now it has, with the X-47B making two successive deck landings followed by catapult takeoffs aboard the USS George H W Bush yesterday in front of visiting brass and media. A third landing attempt after all the spectators had left was apparently aborted by the X-47B after it "self detected a computer anomaly" and took itself off to land ashore - just as a human pilot might divert in the event of difficulties during routine carrier qualification operations. There was apparently a brief technical hitch during deck handling between the successful landings and takeoffs, but this was so swiftly resolved that nobody noticed it.

“We have been using the same [carrier] landing technology for more than 50 years now and the idea that we can take a large UAV and operate in that environment is fascinating,” says Captain Jaime Engdahl, US Navy killer-robot chief. "We have proven we can seamlessly integrate unmanned systems into the carrier environment.”

"Seamless" might be going a bit far: there's a lot more to successfully working in a carrier wing than just being able to land and take off (for a good layman's picture of just how complicated it all is, if you have the time you can't do much better than read the "Rhythms" essays by the late and much lamented Neptunus Lex). But the fact is, getting a human pilot trained up and then keeping him qualified to make deck landings is a huge and costly burden as it is - the fact that the X-47B and its successors will not need to qual and re-qual just on its own should mean that they speedily become the most-favoured option for the US Navy.

"Should" may not equate to "will", however. The US Air Force was offered a similar landbased capability in the shape of the X-45 and firmly ignored it. The USN is believed in some quarters to have proceeded with the X-47B only because it felt forced to, by worries over the capability of its manned jets: the seagoing aviators, unlike their landbased colleagues, have yet to acquire any stealth aircraft, and when they do get some (in the form of the upcoming tailhook C version of the much-maligned F-35) there are concerns over range. The X-47B is said to be able to carry no less than seven hours' worth of fuel.

Those worries are really only relevant in the context of some wild scenario of battle against a future and much more dangerous China, but that's the background against which the Pentagon tends to have its procurement discussions so those worries will definitely seem real to the admirals if not to most normal people. One can be sure the navy brass are worried, because a lot of them wear wings of gold on their chests and measure their manhood (or, rarely at that level, womanhood) by the number of deck landings they have made.

Such senior navy pilots will certainly not find the prospect of unmanned war-jets any more appealing than airforce generals do. After all, it is pretty much a fact that the desperate business of deck landing could have been automated long ago had the admirals and the USN aviation corps shown any desire to make it happen. They did not: indeed, even partial automated assistance was strongly resisted, as Lex tells us.

The US Navy might swallow the bitter pill of automated deck landing if it means that the carrier can still send in a strike while remaining much further out at sea than it otherwise could (this is important, as if the notional future-Chinese enemy can locate the carrier, they might sink it with some kind of unstoppable hypersonic ballistic missile) ... but only might. Pilots have been successfully holding off automation and obsolescence for a long time; they may manage it again.

We'll just have to wait and see. ®

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