The Navy and industry team developing the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) for the sea service cleared a critical milestone this month, proving the system’s ship-based command and control software could perform in a maritime environment.

The UCAS-D software was used to control multiple launches and recoveries with a “manned surrogate aircraft” aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-79) late last week. While manned, the surrogate aircraft was outfitted with the avionics and control systems designed for the actual UCAS-D aircraft, built by prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC], according to a company statement.

"Using a manned surrogate platform to test the unmanned systems avionics and software gives us an extra layer of safety as we test the [UCAS-D]  software to ensure that it responds correctly and safely to different flight conditions," Glenn Colby, aviation and ship integration lead for Navy Air Systems Command, said in the statement.

The successful control and navigation capabilities demonstrated between the on board C2 software and the UCAS-D navigation and avionics systems in flight in a maritime environment puts the program well on track to hit a first unmanned, carrier-based flight test goal of 2013, a senior Navy program official said.

"This manned surrogate test event is a significant and critical step toward landing the [UCAS-D] on the carrier deck in 2013," Navy Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahl said in the same statement. "It represents the first end-to-end test of the hardware and software systems that will eventually allow unmanned systems to integrate safely and successfully with all aspects of carrier operations."

Results from the surrogate testing will be used to continue to refine the mission management, navigation, guidance and control software that the [UCAS-D] will use to perform its first carrier landings in 2013, the statement adds.

Northrop Grumman officials completed the avionics software development for the UCAS-D late last month, company officials told Defense Daily at the time. The completed software tested during last week’s sea trials will be the precursor to the avionics setup that will actually control the air vehicles during unmanned carrier trials at sea.

That final avionics software is currently undergoing testing and should be complete by the end of this year, company officials added.

The biggest challenge facing program officials during last week’s shipboard testing was ensuring the established checks and communications between the aircraft and ship–usually conducted by the pilot–maintain the same level of rigor under the newly automated process for the UCAS-D.

"Today’s carrier environment relies on human operators to monitor and ensure safe flight operations," Colby added. “As we begin to integrate unmanned systems into this very restrictive manned environment, we have to ensure that the software controlling these new systems can recognize and respond correctly to every type of contingency."

While the flight tests represent a major milestone for the UCAS-D program, the results will also have a large impact on the Navy’s follow-on program, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft.

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. Navy officials hope to have either a UCLASS or UCAS-type system deployed with the fleet’s carrier groups by 2018.

Along with Northrop Grumman, the Navy has issued a total of just over $1 million in research and development funds via four separate contracts to Boeing [BA], General Atomics Aeronautical Systems,  and Lockheed Martin [LMT] in late June, as part of the sea service’s effort to get its unmanned, carrier-based aircraft concept off the ground.

 Each company was awarded roughly $500,000 apiece to provide a conceptual demonstration of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft, according to a Navy release posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

“Proposals must have a strong emphasis on an open, adaptive architecture and disciplined systems engineering,” the announcement notes. “The program anticipates leveraging existing, deployed [Defense Department] systems to launch, recover, and control the air vehicle, transfer data in support of time critical strike operations, and conduct [persistent] ISR operations.”

The first of the two UCAS-D aircraft, “Air Vehicle One” is scheduled to arrive at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., this fall to prepare for land-based carrier flight trials. Air Vehicle Two will follow shortly thereafter, once initial flight tests at Edwards AFB, Calif., are complete.