The Navy plans to test the unmanned X-47B in integrated air and flight deck operations off an aircraft carrier later this year to gain more knowledge about the system and how it will perform in that type of environment, the program manager recently said.

The X-47 overflying an aircraft carrier last year. Photo: U.S. Navy
The X-47 overflying an aircraft carrier last year. Photo: U.S. Navy

The Navy wants to see how it will operate with manned aircraft on the flight deck and in the airspace, how quickly it can clear the landing area with a plane coming in behind it, as well as other things like folding its wings and retracting its tail hook, Capt. Beau Duarte told reporters at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition next week.

“We will look at the ability of the X-47B system to take off, to land and to clear the landing area in a timely and effective manner,” Duarte said.

The Navy made history last year when the X-47B became the first unmanned air vehicle to launch off the carrier’s catapult and perform an arresting gear landing. In those cases the X-47B was alone on the carrier. Moving forward, however, the Navy needs to know how it will function with other aircraft. The flights will take place this summer aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).

“We are going to take a look at the X-47B in operations at the same time, in the same airspace and on the same flight deck with manned aircraft,” Duarte said.

After last year’s successful tests, the Navy initially planned to mothball the two X-47Bs it developed with lead contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC] and focus on the follow-on program that will field operational aircraft. But the Navy secured additional funding to keep flying the X-47Bs to learn more.

Last week, an X-47B carried out its first night flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

Duarte said the additional flights on the carrier this summer will be carefully scripted to measure and account for any variables. He said the Navy will initially focus on low-tempo operations but could sometime in 2015 intensify the tempo if there is funding and an available aircraft carrier.

The X-47Bs were developed under the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstration program, and are the precursor to the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. The Navy is readying a draft request for proposals expected to be submitted to the four companies involved by the end of this month.

Boeing [BA], General AtomicsLockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman are the four companies competing for UCLASS, and are currently under design and early development contracts with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, said at Sea Air Space the draft RFP will be classified.

The Navy hopes to deploy the first UCLASS aircraft on a carrier in 2021.