At first glance the X-47B might look like the portly little brother of the B2 Stealth Bomber, but among unmanned aerial vehicles it’s the new badass on the block your mom warned you about.
Built by Northrop Grumman, the X-47B is the Navy’s newest UAV, and the first true robotic fighter in existence. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones currently in operation in the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan that are controlled by pilots on the ground, the X-47B is fully automated–it flies itself. From takeoff, to making turns, to landing, no human is involved–the entire flight is completely handled by the aircraft autonomously.
Watch the X-47B featured on the Military Channel in the following video.
We covered its historic maiden test flight on February 4th of this year. On March 1st it flew a second time–on March 4th a third. The second and third flights are impressive achievements for the Navy and attest to the robustness of the new jet. The tests bring the fighter closer to the goal of achieving aircraft carrier deployment and retrieval by 2013. Assuming it passes all the required testing the X-47B will represent a major achievement for U.S. aerial combat operations by coupling an intelligent, automated strike aircraft with the reach of their aircraft carrier fleet.
Modeled after the B2, its tailless design makes it more difficult to detect by radar. It has a ceiling of 40,000 ft, a 4,500 lb weapon load capacity, and it can travel at supersonic speeds. It also has a range of 2,100 nautical miles, approximately the distance between Washington D.C. and San Francisco and superior to that of the F-18 Hornet.
The initial test flight took the X-47B to a maximum altitude of 5,000 feet and a maximum speed of 180 knots. They also tested its ability to land at a precise point to simulate the requirements of hooking a wire on the deck of an aircraft carrier, albeit a completely still one–it nailed its target perfectly. The second and third flights were meant to push the envelope, bringing the X-47B up to 7,500 feet and 200 knots on the second flight lasting 39 minutes, and 7,500 feet and 180 knots on the third flight lasting 41 minutes. They also tested the robotic aircraft’s ability to maintain a steady course in the face of turbulence and changing crosswinds–something its going to need to do very well if its going to be landing on the not-so-steady decks of aircraft carriers.
When the X-47B joins the ranks of U.S. military combat operations it will be joining a mechanized army of 7,000+ UAVs and 2,000+ ground robots already on the battlefield. Seen from a broad perspective, the X-47B represents just one step in the inevitable march towards automating war. With the advent of long-range missiles soldiers are already receding from the front. Soon they will be replaced with tireless, fearless soldiers who don't need to eat or sleep and have absolute loyalty–unless they malfunction or get hacked by some computer whiz for which video games just don't cut it anymore. War could be waged nonstop. How this tips the balance of power between “haves” and “have-nots” will be something for the whole world to watch.