Robot Jet Fighter Takes First Flight, Aims for Aircraft Carriers in 2013

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X-47 B drone jet fighter first flight

The X-47B automated jet fighter takes its first flight. Robotic warfare just got scarier.

Navy officials and military developers are beaming with smiles of success for they are the proud papas of the newest military marvel: a robotic jet fighter. The X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman, completed its first successful test flight on February 4th at Edwards Air Force Base in California without the assistance of an onboard or remote human pilot. It's all automated. The aircraft's sleek tailless design will make it harder to spot on radar, but proves a unique challenge for an unmanned aerial system (UAS). Yet the X-47B pulled off the historic test flight with great success, as you'll see in the video below. The task ahead will prove much harder. The US Navy is looking to place the robot jet fighter on aircraft carriers in the next decade, with ocean-located trials slated for 2013. From there, robotic jet fighters could prove to be valuable assets in a modern military that is increasingly automating its approach to war.

The X-47B made a short 29 minute, 5000 foot flight, without difficulty, taking a few passes around the airstrip. At this point Northrop Grumman was really only testing the guidance and navigation systems, but according to the press release, they'll be expanding the UAS' aerial repertoire in the months ahead before moving the aircraft to Maryland later in the year. The footage in the video below may seem pretty calm, but remember you're watching a high quality jet fighter fly without any human assistance either in or outside the craft.

Part of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration project (UCAS-D), the X-47B is something beyond the drones and UAVs you see in action today. It's not a spy, nor a single-target hunter-killer, it's a complete jet fighter. The 60 foot wingspan, 40,000 altitude, and 2100 nautical mile flight range, not to mention 4500 lb weapon bays, speak of an aircraft that would be a high end component of the military of the future. It will have more range (though less firepower) than the F-18 Hornets commonly used today. Imagine wings of these fighters being launched from aircraft carriers positioned out of the reach of anti-carrier missiles and striking targets without the need for active human judgment. That's a scary/awe-inspiring idea that we could see come to reality in the next decade. Admiral Gary Roughead has pushed for these automated fighters to see duty by 2018.

There are still many hurdles in the way to achieving that goal. The flat, unmoving desert airstrip of the test flight is miles away (literally) from the undulating deck of an aircraft carrier. Northrop Grumman will have to perfect the UAS' flight for it to survive in that challenging environment. In the next two years its expected that the X-47B will expand its flight capabilities, and begin testing mid-air refueling as it prepares for real world carrier tests in 2013. There are a million things that could go wrong in the interim, but the Navy seems fixed on their goal:

"First flight is a giant confidence boost to the entire UCAS-D industry team. It provides us with important momentum as we now turn to demonstrating that this first-of-its-kind air system can not only fly, but also integrate smoothly with carrier operations."
–– Capt. Jaime Engdahl, UCAS-D program manager, U.S. Navy

Whether it's 2018 or some later date, I think it's almost certain we'll see these UAS become an accepted and valuable component of the US military. Already we rely upon remote and automated drones like the Reaper to provide a tactical edge in the asymmetric wars fought in the Middle East. Whether they are deployed in such scenarios, or reserved as defenses against more traditional warfare with nations like China, the descendants of the X-47B are going to join our fighting forces.

Which leaves us in not-so-new territory. We've had automated drones for years, but as we've discussed, many of their armed missions are flown by human pilots in remote locations. With the X-47B we're seeing a move towards fully automated machines that would have a (somewhat) unprecedented lethality. Automated missiles and robotic gun turrets are one thing, but subsonic jet fighters carrying enough ordnance to erase a village is something else. Yet the progress towards automation is probably unstoppable. Saving pilots' lives, increasing effectiveness, keeping an edge on other militaries - the benefits are too compelling for the US to ignore. We're going to keep building deadlier and deadlier unmanned aircraft systems, hopefully it will work out for the best.

At this point I'd usually make a joke about the robot apocalypse, but it seems that Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx beat me to it by more than five years. Enjoy the trailer for Stealth below. Talk about explosive ordnance, this thing's the biggest bomb I've ever seen:

[image and video credits: Northrop Grumman]
[source: Northrop Grumman]

Discussion — 20 Responses

  • Anonymous February 8, 2011 on 4:55 pm

    Heh, how about abandoning carriers and instead go for some kind of catch net system and a cruise missile like launch system? Send up a group of missiles with a loiter option that can then be recovered if they run out of fuel before finding a target to ram…

  • Andersen Martin February 8, 2011 on 8:10 pm

    Stealth “bombed” terribly in the box office. It’s a quite good movie, actually 🙂

  • jgehrke February 8, 2011 on 8:17 pm

    It’s all about the control security – if control of such aircraft can somehow be hacked, then very scary scenarios could play out. I don’t fear the path to robot warfare, but it seems like there is some potential for simply gaining control of the systems to attack ourselves or allies.

    • Dan Barbu jgehrke June 16, 2013 on 10:39 pm

      It is a stand alone system completely autonomous. It can be “hacked only if you get inside its “brains” and re-program it. Quite difficult to do given the item we are talking about!

  • jgehrke February 8, 2011 on 8:17 pm

    It’s all about the control security – if control of such aircraft can somehow be hacked, then very scary scenarios could play out. I don’t fear the path to robot warfare, but it seems like there is some potential for simply gaining control of the systems to attack ourselves or allies.

  • Anonymous February 9, 2011 on 12:05 am

    This isn’t a fighter but a light bomber. Of course the same was true of the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.

  • Rob Barry February 9, 2011 on 12:54 am

    Just one problem: The government can rarely afford to hire genius and hackers have it in droves…

    • Anonymous Rob Barry February 9, 2011 on 2:19 am

      The U.S. spent 533 BILLION in 2010. We can afford anyone. But, hiring smart people doesn’t get you the kickbacks or political donations…

  • Joped February 9, 2011 on 1:10 am

    Looks like Skynet is right on schedule.

  • Arnold February 9, 2011 on 1:24 am

    The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

  • Joe11 February 9, 2011 on 1:42 am

    “Automated missiles and robotic gun turrets are one thing, but subsonic jet fighters carrying enough ordinance to erase a village is something else.”

    Oh how they take pleasure in “erasing villages”.

  • CityZen February 9, 2011 on 2:21 am

    “…striking targets without the need for active human judgment.”

    That doesn’t sound like a plus to me.

  • Avarionic February 9, 2011 on 5:19 am

    regarding “Stealth”
    …The only way not to laugh…
    …is not to watch…

  • Chris February 9, 2011 on 9:27 am

    The thing to consider .. no wet soggy bits inside, so it can pull massive Gs and do things humans are unable to do. Consider when it needs to evade something like a missile.

  • Marcus February 9, 2011 on 11:59 am

    I’ve seen the design of this wing before – on old, old paintings, murals etc. showing flying “visitors from the sky”.

  • AndrewP February 9, 2011 on 12:26 pm

    A pilot is legally accountable for his actions pressing the fire button.
    Who is legally accountable for this machines actions? The person who turns it on?

  • Guest February 9, 2011 on 12:53 pm

    Ordnance. “Ordinance” is what keeps you from parking on a certain part of the street longer than 30 minutes between the hours of 7am and 5pm. “Ordnance” goes bang.

  • Keepandbear February 9, 2011 on 1:38 pm

    Makes me think of BSG, waves of Cylon raiders detaching from a Base Star.

  • Sakamura February 9, 2011 on 3:25 pm

    The mothership attack scene from SkyLine would have provided a great example.

  • Julmaass February 15, 2011 on 4:05 am

    this is idiotic. Haven’t they learned from the drones and the many instances of friendly fire? I guess now instead of having to apologize for every life lost to a drone misfire. they can just blame the robot.