Just after 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, May 14, a prototype drone (the X-47B, shown) launched from the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush sailing about 100 miles off the coast of Virginia.
The lift-off of the drone from the aircraft carrier was historic, as it was the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle was able to pull off that difficult feat. While impressive, it would have been more so had the Navy been able to land it back on the flight deck, the way manned aircraft do.
A Wired story reports that X-47B program manager Captain Jamie Engdahl said “that the X-47B will actually conduct its first carrier landing at sea around July or August. Engdahl and other Navy officials say they still have to perform more tests before the X-47B is capable of landing on a carrier.”
Although the drone — known by the amusing call sign “Salty Dog 502" — cannot yet perform that maneuver, it is remarkable in many ways.
Perhaps most amazing of the technologies built into this weapon is the fact that it is not only unmanned, but unpiloted. This newest Northrop Grumman invention completes its mission using a pre-programmed algorithm and GPS data.
“The Navy’s model is different from the Air Force’s,” said Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, as quoted in Wired. “We don’t have someone actively flying this machine with a stick and a throttle. We fly it with a mouse and a keyboard.”
Military commanders were proud of the achievement (Wired reports that Navy officers “openly likened the X-47B’s launch off the Bush to the first-ever launch of a plane off the U.S.S. Birmingham in 1910”) and accordingly invited members of the media to witness the demonstration.
Such publicity is rare when it comes to the activities of drones, however.
The Obama administration is notoriously tight-lipped about the myriad uses to which it puts these devices in the “War on Terror” once they’ve been tested and tuned with a lot less media attention.
In Pakistan, the president’s drone war is deplored for its secrecy and its lethal legacy.
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