By Marina Malenic

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–The Navy and prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC] plan to conclude an intensive four-year flight-test program of the sea service’s newest unmanned reconnaissance and strike aircraft in 2014 with autonomous aerial refueling, officials said yesterday.

Given a successful first flight of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration (UCAS-D) earlier this year, the program is on track to complete six phases of flying by 2014, said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy’s program manager for the system. One aircraft, referred to as AV-1, has been built for the program. Construction on a second aircraft, expected to include an aerial refueling capability, is set to begin later this year.

“We’ll fly AV-1 again in the summer,” said Engdahl. AV-1 will be transferred from Edwards AFB, Calif.–site of the first flight–to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., in the fall for shore-based carrier suitability testing, according to Engdahl.

He was speaking at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space symposium here.

The UCAS-D, as envisioned by Navy planners, will be an unmanned, carrier-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft with the ability to carry out precision strike operations.

Janis Pamiljans, Northrop Grumman’s program manager for the system, noted that the “technology leap” for the demonstration program is autonomous flying, including the ability to conduct autonomous aerial refueling by a tanker aircraft.

“That technology is already there,” Pamiljans added. He said Northrop Grumman has conducted about 40 autonomous aerial refuelings using alternative aircraft. According to the UCAS-D test flight program, the test will be conducted using the second aircraft in 2014.

“The aircraft has the algorithms, and it can find the tanker,” he said. “It is a very software-intensive procedure.”

Pamiljans said the company is planning for approximately 120 UCAS-D flights.

Aside from ISR and strike capabilities, the demonstrator also proved its low observability “relevance,” during its initial test flight, Engdahl said. Exploring its stealth potential is one of one of many issues program officials plan to explore in the coming years, he said.