UCAS Demo Timeline
How Unmanned Aviation Arrived to Where it is Today
After six years of steady progress toward fulfilling the U.S. Navy's goal of unmanned carrier integration, the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program completed its carrier demonstration July 15.
"It was really an incredible sight to see the entire government/industry team execute [X-47B operations] aboard the carrier over the past eight months," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, N-UCAS program manager.
During its time at sea, the aircraft completed a total of 16 precision approaches to the carrier flight deck, including five planned tests of X-47B wave-off functions, nine touch-and-go landings, two arrested landings and three catapult launches. The data collected at sea will be compared to the data accumulated from more than 160 precision approaches and six arrested landings at Patuxent River, as well as thousands of high fidelity simulated landings.
In order to make very tight carrier timelines in May and July, the program team accelerated their flight rate up to four times than what was originally planned, ultimately executing 48 test flights in a 90-day period before embarking aboard CVN 77 two months ago.
Sequestration impacts to the fleet and carrier operational commitments had eliminated the opportunity to conduct additional X-47B tests aboard a carrier, Engdahl said. The team had to rethink their demonstration approach to maximize execution and learning while achieving the program's technical goals with no impact to fleet operations.
"In the end we counted our available test time in minutes," Engdahl added. "The team executed all of their necessary tasks very rapidly and the system performed as expected from beginning to end."
Heavy use of modeling and simulation throughout the program, extensive lab testing and up-front systems engineering produced a system that allowed engineers to accurately predict aircraft performance and validate the aircraft's capability with limited flight testing throughout the entire program, he said.
The events aboard CVN 77 culminate a decade of Navy unmanned integration efforts that show the Navy's readiness to move forward with unmanned carrier aviation, said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons at Patuxent River.
"It isn't very often you get a glimpse of the future," said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus after observing the historic landing event July 10. "Today, those of us aboard USS George H.W. Bush got that chance as we witnessed the X-47B make its first-ever arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier. The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers."
The X-47B approach and landing looks like any other tactical jet trap on the carrier, but the reality is that the technology inside the aircraft and ship is completely new and innovative, Engdahl said. The aircraft used precision relative GPS navigation, advanced aircraft flight controls, autonomous vehicle software, high integrity networks, digitized communications and digitized air traffic control messaging to perform its carrier operations autonomously while being directed by a mission operator aboard the ship.
"This technology leap forward for the Navy will not only benefit long endurance Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities by bringing autonomous UAS aboard aircraft carriers, but its direct application to manned aircraft promises to provide increased safety, readiness and combat capability," Engdahl said.Videos from historic X-47B test events: