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X-47B to test-fly alongside fighter jet from carrier deck

The combat drone taking off of the USS Bush during July 2013 carrier trials. A US Navy photo

NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER (BNS): The US Navy's carrier-based combat drone X-47B is gearing up for shore-based flight tests ahead of the next round of sea trials this summer.

The new phase of trials will be aimed at maturing air traffic control and ground support standard operating procedures for co-use of airspace between unmanned and manned aircraft during day and nighttime operations.

"Continuing to fly the X-47B in the Patuxent River air space will further exercise the research, test, development and evaluation (RDT&E) infrastructure with an unmanned air system," said Capt. Beau Duarte, programme manager for Unmanned Carrier Aviation at Patuxent River.

"These tests are a build-up for the next carrier event this summer."

As the first unmanned aircraft to take off and land from a modern aircraft carrier, X-47B will once again embark on the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in the August timeframe.

This time, the test team will focus on perfecting flight deck operations and integrating the X-47B with manned carrier aircraft, the US Naval Air Systems Command said.

"We are working toward a new set of firsts for the X-47B. We'll test the new capabilities of the X-47B wing-fold and tailhook retract system, and will demonstrate compatibility with a carrier jet-blast deflector on the flight deck for the first time," said Matt Funk, X-47B lead test engineer.

The proven use of these functions will allow the air vehicle to take off, land, and hold in the same pattern as manned aircraft, the next step toward UAS operations aboard aircraft carriers without disruption to normal carrier flight deck operations, he said.

"This at-sea period will mark the first time manned aircraft and the X-47B will operate together on the flight deck," Duarte said.

The Northrop-built X-47B pilotless aircraft, which boasts of a wingspan of more than 62 feet (wider than that of an F/A-18 Super Hornet), began its carrier-based flight demonstrations in December 2012 from onboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75).

After successfully completing the flight trials, the X-47B undertook carrier deck operations from aboard USS George H.W. Bush in May 2013, during which period it completed the first-ever catapult launch.

While the X-47B is not intended for operational use, the US Navy, through the UCAS programme, has developed the concept of operations and demonstrated the technology for follow-on unmanned carrier based aircraft.

The Navy is reportedly planning to deploy such stealth drones in Asia in order to maintain its crucial edge over its potential adversary, China.

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