Sunday, February 14, 2010

X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Taking Shape On Board Lincoln

An artist's conception of the X-47B long-range unmanned aerial vehicle on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program will demonstrate the capability of an autonomous, low-observable unmanned aircraft to perform carrier launches and recoveries. (Photo illustration courtesy Northrop Grumman/Released)

By Lt. Cmdr. William Marks, USS Abraham Lincoln Public Affairs

USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, At Sea (NNS) -- Personnel from the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program team and industry partner Northrop Grumman Corporation are underway with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) to test the integration of existing ship systems with new systems that will support the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D).

This effort will reduce program risk and is one of many steps toward the X-47B's first carrier arrested landing or "trap."

The X-47B will be the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard an aircraft carrier. With a 62ft wingspan and length of 38ft, the X-47B is about 87 percent the size of the F/A-18C aircraft currently operating aboard Navy aircraft carriers.

The UCAS-D effort is focused on developing and demonstrating an aircraft carrier (CV) suitable, low observable (LO) unmanned air system in support of persistent, penetrating surveillance, and penetrating strike capabilities in high threat areas. The effort will evolve technologies required to conduct launch, recovery, and carrier controlled airspace (CCA) operations and autonomous air refueling (AAR) of an LO platform. By FY13, the Navy plans to achieve UCAS CV demonstration; achieve hybrid probe & drogue (USN style) and boom/receptacle (USAF style) AAR demonstration; and evaluate and identify technologies supporting future naval capability requirements.

Mark Pilling, a former naval flight officer with operational unmanned aircraft experience, is the team's mission operator. He and his team are charged with verifying mission operator software between the ship and aircraft.

"This is the first step in the X-47B's integration into the carrier's systems," said Pilling.

The team is testing X-47B software integration by using a King Air turbo prop "surrogate" aircraft taking off and landing from shore. As the aircraft approaches the carrier, it performs the same types of procedures as manned aircraft. However, since the X-47B is unmanned, digital messages from shipboard controllers will be used to control the aircraft instead of verbal instructions. In response to the digital command and control messages, the plane's software confirms, complies and sends a "wilco" signal back to the controllers and mission operator.

"Over the last two at sea periods on Lincoln, we have integrated into a number of the ship systems, from PriFly, to CATCC, to the LSO platform," said Pilling.

Janice Stolzy, the Northrop Grumman project lead, is on board to verify that the prototype equipment works in a real-time operational environment. Stolzy said successful UCAS-D system testing on Lincoln will set the stage for additional developmental testing later this year, including testing the software integration using an F/A-18 surrogate aircraft to more closely emulate the X-47B's flight path.

John Zander, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) lead test engineer, said a prime benefit of a UCAS concept is to reduce the risk to human pilots.

"This is an important milestone for the Navy and we're making great strides on board Lincoln," said Zander.

Additional UCAS-D development activities are underway at multiple NAVAIR and Northrop Grumman sites throughout the United States. First flight of the X-47B is expected later this year.