Unmanned Drones Landing Autonomously Next to F-18s Is a Very Big Deal

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The days of piloted combat aircraft are quickly coming to an end, soon to be heavily augmented if not outright replaced by UCAS, or Unmanned Combat Air Systems. Just yesterday, the Navy's X-47B demonstrator proved that manned and unmanned operations can take place on the same flight deck.

The X-47B has already shown that is can take off and land autonomously aboard a roiling flight deck. During a series of trial flights aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt yesterday, Navy researchers examined whether the pilotless drone could reliably queue up and landing alongside conventional aircraft without colliding. Per a Navy press release:

The first series of manned/unmanned operations began this morning [Aug. 17] when the ship launched an F/A-18 and an X-47B. After an eight-minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area. The deck-based operator used newly developed deck handling control to manually move the aircraft out of the way of other aircraft, allowing the F/A-18 to touch down close behind the X-47B's recovery.

This cooperative launch and recovery sequence will be repeated multiple times over the course of the planned test periods. The X-47B performed multiple arrested landings, catapults, flight deck taxiing and deck refueling operations.


Clearly, there is still much more testing to be done before these autonomous flyers enter active service but technological advance that keeps our airmen out of harm's way can't come soon enough, and it's right on the horizon. [DoD via The Aviationist]