Robot Fighter Jet X-47B Autonomously Lands on Aircraft Carrier

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The US Navy’s newest fighter is a high-tech batwing the size of an F/A 18 Super Hornet. The stealthy X-47B can carry 4,500 pounds of weapons at half mach speed, up to 40,000 feet, and over 2,400 miles. The aircraft lacks but one thing. A cockpit. The X-47B is a next-generation military drone.

The X-47B is completely autonomous, and we’re not just talking the ability to fly simple missions from one airstrip to another. Recently, the X-47B landed on an aircraft carrier by algorithm alone. That’s something only elite fighter pilots have been able to do until now.

Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, said of the X-47B’s feat, “Landing the X-47B safely aboard the ship without a human operator requires a very sophisticated computer system capable of factoring in airspeed, altitude, and angle-of-attack to a pitching, rolling flight deck, not to mention the changing winds and seas.”

The carrier landing was historic for the Navy, maybe equally so for robots and artificial intelligence. But it wasn’t all roses.

After two successful touchdowns, the first of two X-47B drones flying under the call sign, Salty Dog 502, scrubbed a third attempt after its flight computer failed. The second drone, Salty Dog 501, aborted a fourth attempt a few days later.

From one perspective, that’s a touch worrisome.

Glitchy computers are the last thing you want as a multi-million dollar fighter jet attempts a tight landing with personnel and expensive equipment in jeopardy. On the other hand, that the X-47B’s handlers were able to reroute the aircraft to a safe landing onshore demonstrates the aircraft’s built-in redundancy is capable of handling equipment failures.

And of course, the aircraft itself is still experimental. The Navy was aiming for three successful landings but was satisfied that just the first two provided enough information to move forward.

X-47B, Salty Dog 502, autonomously touches down on aircraft carrier.

X-47B, call sign Salty Dog 502, autonomously touches down on aircraft carrier, USS George H.W. Bush.

The eight-year-old, $1.4 billion X-47B was developed by Northrop Grumman and has so far fulfilled the Navy’s requirements on budget and on time—a remarkable achievement in itself.

Though these demonstrator aircraft aren't destined for Navy service, future generations will take to the air inside the next decade.

Is this technology terrific or terrifying? It depends on who you are, or more specifically, where you are. If the Predator and Reaper drones were grim assassins, the X-47B is the ninja to their karate.

On an aircraft carrier, and with future in-air refueling, an X-47B drone’s strike range will be nothing less than the world. At the same time, removing the pilot from the equation radically changes what the aircraft can do.

Mabus again, “Not only will the future carrier air wing be more combat effective, they will cost less to build, and less expensive airframes mean we can build more and use them differently, like developing swarm tactics and performing maneuvers that require more g-force than a human body can withstand.”

If you just got chills imagining heavily armed robot fighter jets performing high-g swarm tactics—you wouldn’t be alone. That is some serious stuff.

And the US isn’t the only one developing robot fighters. A little while back we covered the UK’s Taranis superdrone. It’s not landing on carriers yet, but it will be mostly autonomous, fully stealthy, and capable of supersonic flight.

More autonomous military aircraft means fewer humans in harm's way. But as control is handed over to algorithms, it also means we'll need to develop a new code of ethics governing autonomous killer machines. The concern is real enough to have prompted the US military to pen a directive outlining its "only humans pull the trigger" policy.

Whatever your stance, there's no denying robots—from drones to bipedal and four-legged bots—are the future of warfare.

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • Anna Delgado-Duarte July 20, 2013 on 1:47 pm

    Weapon for peaceful purposes ~ General Aladeen.

  • palmytomo July 20, 2013 on 6:13 pm

    The fundamental of war is fear of attack, or interest in attacking others. I’m hoping that the new era of social networking will connect people so much that those old primitive attitudes get dissolved in international collaborations in much more useful activities than the military. Think what that (billions?) investment of R&D and effort could instead have done for useful things like free solar energy & new energy storage devices, healthy agriculture (our food), education, reducing the work week, sports facilities, health, arts, better transport, town & neighbourhood improvement, faster & better internet facilities. Let’s make war activity a minor spin-off from all those instead of them being a spin-off of it – get the dog to wag the tail instead of tthe tail wagging the dog.

  • Anna Delgado-Duarte July 20, 2013 on 7:35 pm

    “More autonomous military aircraft means fewer humans in harm’s way.” Thank God! The only ones dying will be those being shot.

    • palmytomo Anna Delgado-Duarte July 20, 2013 on 10:20 pm

      First, if you remove limits from any system, the system expands. More ease of killing by drones will presumably mean more killings, less scrutiny and accountability, and probably more reaction from those attacked. Second, the US does not ‘own’ drone technology, it has just started it and brought it into frequent use so it can do attacks without risking military personnel. Military all over the world will increase drone use, meaning more killings again.
      Third, the autonomous drone will do what it ‘thinks’ is best, without recourse to a human perspective. Its ‘accidents’ therefore will not prevent really dumb, huge atrocities the way a piloted craft would.

      • daneel333 palmytomo July 21, 2013 on 3:07 am

        For now, at least, the military have adopted the policy of always keeping a human in the loop when it comes to firing a weapon.So even if these drones attain some autonomous navigational and tactical capabilities, there should theoretically still be a human giving the command to engage the target or “pulling the trigger”.
        Despite these apparently welcoming considerations when it comes to unmanned aerial systems, I believe we already have ship defense systems that target and fire autonomously such as the Phalanx CIWS. There comes a time, I guess when human operators are simply to slow to react and keep up with the action.
        With this in mind, I think we’ll be seeing a gradual change in policy towards fully automated response systems that can and will assess situations and make decisions autonomously without a human in the loop, so to speak.
        And yes, the more robots and the less soldiers there are in the combat zone, the easier it gets to deploy weapons of mass effect. You can always make the claim that it was a successful operation because “We didn’t suffer any casualties”.

        • Bikkhu daneel333 August 30, 2013 on 1:30 am

          Yeah, as said one commander of automated cannon in Afghanistan: People wont us to approve each shot, but if someone shoot rocket from the hill on us, human operator would manage only to say fu… On the other hand computer manage to shoot the rocket down.

  • colinberry1 August 11, 2013 on 2:08 am

    Well it’s certainly not intelligence that is ruling our society, it is money and power, and I wonder where it is coming from, the American people are bankrupt but yet have the money to invade all these countries.

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