The Navy anticipates launching the X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle from an aircraft carrier sometime next year, but the timing will depend on the operational deployments of the ships, Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the program manager for Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D), said Friday.

The Navy carried out the first launch of an X-47B on a shore-based stream driven catapult Thursday in a major step toward flying unmanned aerial vehicles off aircraft carriers. Engdahl told reporters that Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) will continue the ground-based testing to gather more data ahead of any carrier-based launch.

“It’s too early to tell how the operational carrier deployments will fall in 2013,” he said. He said NAVAIR is maintaining a capability to fly off of any carrier on the East Coast in the event one becomes available.

The Navy has procured two Northrop Grumman [NOC]-built X-47Bs under the UCAS-D program. The planes, based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., resemble a smaller version of the stealthy B-2 made by the same company. The second X-47B has been loaded on the USS Harry Truman (CVN-75) in Norfolk, Va., for two weeks of flight deck maneuvering tests.

Engdahl said the Navy has resolved in earlier problem with the X-47B’s tailhook in grabbing the arresting cable. Tailhooks from the now retired F-14 Tomcats were initially used, but were unable to properly snag the arresting cable. A redesigned version was tested earlier this year and showed “100 percent” success, Engdahl said.

The UCAS-D program is designed to produce an unmanned, carrier-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft with the ability to carry out precision strike operations, and to mature the technology ahead of the separate follow-on Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program.

The Navy originally planned to deploy a UCLASS system on an aircraft carrier by 2018, but announced in February that those plans were being pushed back by two years. Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the program executive officer for unmanned aviation and weapons, told reporters in July that the 2020 goal was “ambitious” given the complexities associated with the technology, fully integrating it on an aircraft carrier and training operational personnel.

The Navy in 2011 issued four separate UCLASS research and development contracts to Boeing [BA], General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman.