SH 149_#1 BIG

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 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.