ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H. W. BUSH–The Navy’s X-47B touched down on an aircraft carrier Wednesday, marking the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle has made an arresting gear landing aboard a ship, bringing the service’s effort to operate UAVs off aircraft carriers closer to reality.

The Northrop Grumman [NOC]-built X-47B demonstrator landed on the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) sailing off the coast of Virginia.

An X-47B launches off a carrier in May. Photo by U.S. Navy

In May the Navy conducted an X-47B catapult launch off the same ship for the first time. The Navy has been engaged in shore-based testing of the aircraft at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., including catapult launches and arresting gear landings.

The Navy has developed two X-47Bs under the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstration program. UCAS is a precursor to the aircraft the Navy plans to develop and operationally field at the beginning of the next decade in a separate program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS).

The X-47B departed from Pax River and headed to the carrier. Once in the vicinity of the ship, it received approach and land commands and carried them out autonomously.

As the X-47B’s development proceeds, the Navy is moving forward with the UCLASS program. NAVAIR plans to release a draft request for proposals (RFP) in August and a final RFP early next year.

Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin [LMT], Boeing [BA] and General Atomics are currently under contract for preliminary design for UCLASS, and all four firms are likely to submit proposals in the competition. The Navy expects to select the winner by the end of September 2014.

UCLASS’s primary mission will be intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but could also have a limited strike capability.