March 20, 2012: The U.S. Navy wants its new carrier based UAVs to understand the hand signals deck crews use to direct pilots of aircraft around the flight deck. This is because, as the U.S. Navy hustles to ready its X-47B for carrier landings, attention has also been paid to how deck crew would communicate with the UAV once it had landed. Currently, UAVs like this are moved around the landing area by their remote operators. For the U.S. Air Force this involves a local operator, not the ones based in the U.S. that operate these UAVs remotely via a satellite link. While the navy could go with a hand held device (like a video game controller) it would be simpler if there were pattern recognition software for one of the X-47B's cameras that would recognize and interpret the deck crew hand signals.
The X-47B will begin landing on, and taking off from, carriers next year. Take-offs are relatively easy. The hard part is landing. Software has already been developed for this, and last year a manned carrier aircraft (an F-18), using the X-47B automated landing software, successfully landed on a carrier. Actually, this kind of software has been in development for over a decade, to make it easier for human pilots to land on carriers (the most difficult type of landing). It was not a major leap to make this software even more powerful and reliable. When the X-47Bs begin landing on carriers it will be silicon all the way.
The U.S. Navy believes they need unmanned combat aircraft (UCAS, or Unmanned Combat Air System) on their carriers as soon as possible. The current plan is to get these aircraft into service six years from now. But there is an effort to get the unmanned carrier aircraft into service sooner than that. A major reason for this is the realization that American carriers currently have to get within 800 kilometers of their target before launching bomber aircraft. Potential enemies increasingly have aircraft and missiles with range greater than 800 kilometers. The navy already has a solution in development; the X-47B UCAS has a range of 2,500 kilometers.
Last year the U.S. Navy leadership also ordered naval aviation commanders to examine the possibility of reducing orders for the new F-35B and F-35C manned aircraft and use that money to buy the new X-47B, as well as similar robotic combat aircraft. The navy currently plans to buy 680 F-35B and F-35C aircraft for (on average) $100 million each. A UCAS (Unmanned Combat Aerial System) costs less than half that and provides most of the same capabilities, plus much longer range.
For most of the last decade the navy has been hustling to ready a UCAS for carrier operations and combat use. Within four years the navy expects to have the X-47B demonstrating the ability to regularly operate from a carrier and perform combat (including reconnaissance and surveillance) operations. The new efforts aim to have UCAS aircraft perform ground attack missions as well, something the Predators have been doing for over a decade. The larger Reaper UAV was designed to expand this combat capability, and is being built as quickly as possible to replace F-16s and other bombers in the combat zone.
The 20 ton X-47B weighs significantly less than the 30 ton F-18E and has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. Once it can operate off a carrier, the X-47B will be used for a lot of bombing. The X-47B uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which currently powers the F-16 and F-15. The navy has been impressed with the success of the missile carrying U.S. Air Force Predator and Reaper UAVs and expects the same kind of success with the X-47B. The Reaper weighs only 4.7 tons, is propeller driven, and carries only about half a ton of weapons. The navy is also testing the jet powered successor to the Reaper, the ten ton Avenger that carries 1.5 tons of weapons.
The air force and navy have always differed about the widespread use of UAVs in combat. When the air force agreed to work with the navy on UCASs a decade ago, the idea was that the air force ones would largely remain in storage, to provide a rapid "surge" capability in wartime. The navy, however, wanted to use theirs to replace manned aircraft on carriers. The reason was simple: carrier ops are dangerous and carrier qualified pilots are more difficult and expensive to train and retain in the service. The navy still has these problems and senior admirals are pretty much in agreement that UCASs are the future of carrier aviation. The sooner these UCASs prove they can safely and effectively operate from carriers, the better. The X-47B (or planned, slightly larger, X-47C) is not the definitive carrier UCAS but the navy hopes it is good enough to show that unmanned aircraft can do the job. Normally, "X" class aircraft are just used as technology demonstrators. But the X-47 program has been going on for so long, and has incorporated so much from UAVs already serving in combat, that the X-47B may end up eventually running recon and bombing missions as the MQ-47B.
The DARPA project is, in effect, the Department of Defense leadership backing the navy plans and spurring the air force to catch up. At the moment, the air force has a hard time building enough MQ-9s, which are used as a ground support aircraft, in addition to reconnaissance and surveillance. But, as the navy is demonstrating, you can build UCAS that can carry more weapons, stay in the air longer, and hustle to where they are needed faster. DARPA will try to demonstrate this, but it will be up to the air force and navy (and maybe even the army) to make it happen.