Monday, February 7, 2011

X-47B UCAS Demonstrator Makes First Flight

US Navy/Northrop Grumman team move closer to carrier trials

 The US Navy is one large step closer to introducing its first carrier-based unmanned combat aircraft. On Friday, 4 February, the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B successfully completed its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The X-47B is an unmanned combat air system (UCAS) technology demonstrator designed as a stealthy long-range reconnaissance and strike aircraft. 

According to Northrop Grumman, the tailless, delta-shaped aircraft took off at 2:09 pm PST and performed a 29-minute maiden flight above Rogers Dry Lake. This flight was an important milestone to prove the aircraft’s basic aeronautical capabilities and performance. Friday’s successful test flight allows the team to move ahead in the process of demonstrating its technological abilities to develop an operational fighter-sized unmanned aircraft that can safely operate from a US Navy aircraft carrier. 
Janis Pamiljans, vice president and UCAS-D program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector, confirmed that “designing a tailless, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft from a clean sheet is no small feat.” Indeed, the US Navy and Northrop Grumman face two considerable challenges: having to integrate an unmanned combat aircraft into routine carrier operations, as well as solving the problem of landing a tailless aircraft on a carrier – with many firsts still to come when carrier trials begin in 2013.

Northrop Grumman was selected as the US Navy’s UCAS-D prime contractor in August 2007 when it was assigned to develop two X-47B demonstrators. The first prototype X-47B was rolled-out in December 2008. The X-47B’s maiden flight represents the “culmination, verification and certification” of the rather theoretical work, which since was carried out by the UCAS-D team. Northrop Grumman explains, “the aircraft will remain at Edwards AFB for flight envelope expansion before transitioning to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. later this year.” The latter will witness the programmes next major milestones, preparing the aircraft for demanding naval operations. However, Friday’s first flight marks the beginning of a year-long envelope expansion test programme at Edwards AFB.

After having completed all trials, the technology demonstrator is expected to result in the development of a prototype of a production vehicle, which may then become part of the US Navy’s future carrier-based aircraft fleet. Similar in size to an F/A-18, it is designed to support manned combat aircraft or to carry out reconnaissance and strike missions that might be too dangerous for manned fighters. It will feature a twin weapons bay which opens under its flat belly with a capacity to carry a 4,500lb payload.

Major partners on Northrop Grumman's industry team include GKN Aerospace (substructure and skins), Lockheed Martin (control surfaces, leading edges, engine inlet) and Pratt & Whitney (F100 engine), as well as Eaton, GE, Hamilton Sundstrand, Dell, Honeywell, Goodrich, Moog, Wind River, Parker Aerospace and Rockwell Collins. (nvk)
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