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Navy unmanned plane flies with manned fighter

The unmanned X-47B, shown here, flew from the same aircraft carrier as a manned F/A-18 fighter jet.
The unmanned X-47B, shown here, flew from the same aircraft carrier as a manned F/A-18 fighter jet.
U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy announced that its X-47B unmanned demonstrator plane took off and landed from the same aircraft carrier as a manned aircraft for the first time Aug. 17.

The Navy said the tests showed it can seamlessly combine unmanned and manned flight operations in the busy, complex confines of a carrier deck.

The tests, which occurred aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Atlantic Ocean, began when the ship launched an F/A-18 fighter jet and the X-47B. After an eight-minute flight, the bat-like X-47B returned and landed, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area. The F/A-18 touched down soon after that.

The tests "showed that the X-47B could take off, land and fly in the carrier pattern with manned aircraft while maintaining normal flight deck operations," said Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Aviation office. "This is key for the future carrier air wing."

The tests came a little over a year after the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B achieved several other milestones for unmanned aviation, including the first-ever catapult launch from a carrier and the first-ever arrested landing on a carrier.

The Navy plans to conduct more X-47B flight tests over the next year to refine how it uses the aircraft and to mature technologies for the future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, which is intended to perform intelligence-gathering, targeting and strike missions. Four aerospace companies are competing to develop UCLASS, and the Navy is expected to issue the final solicitation for the program this summer.