ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH -- A drone the size of a fighter jet took off from the deck of an American aircraft carrier for the first time Tuesday in a test flight that could eventually open the way for the U.S. to launch unmanned aircraft from just about any place in the world.
The X-47B is the first drone designed to take off and land on a carrier, meaning the U.S. military would not need permission from other countries to use their bases.
"As our access to overseas ports, forward operating locations and airspace is diminished around the world, the value of the aircraft carrier and the air wing becomes more and more important," Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, said after the flight off the Virginia coast. "So today is history."
The move to expand the capabilities of the nation's drones comes amid growing criticism of America's use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks against terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Critics in the U.S. and abroad have charged that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight.
Still, defense analysts say drones are the future of warfare.
The new Joint Strike Fighter jet "might be the last manned fighter the U.S. ever builds. They're so expensive, they're so complex, and you put a human at risk every time it takes off from a carrier," said James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"This is the next generation of military technology – the unmanned vehicles, the unmanned submersibles, the unmanned aircraft. This will be the future of warfare, and it will be a warfare that is a little less risky for humans but maybe a little more effective when it comes to delivering weapons and effect."
While the X-47B isn't intended for operational use, it will help Navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.
The X-47B is far bigger than the Predator, has three times the range and can be programmed to carry out missions with no human intervention, the Navy said.
While the X-47B isn't a stealth aircraft, it was designed with the low profile of one. That will help in the development of future stealth drones, which would be valuable as the military changes its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, where a number of countries' air defenses are a lot stronger than Afghanistan's.
"Unmanned systems would be the likely choice in a theater or an environment that was highly defended or dangerous where we wouldn't want to send manned aircraft," Branch said.
During Tuesday's flight, the X-47B used a steam catapult to launch, just as traditional Navy warplanes do. The unarmed aircraft then made two low approaches toward the aircraft carrier as it if was going to land, before being waved off and returning to a higher altitude. The jet then landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland about an hour later.
The next critical test for the tailless plane will come this summer, when it attempts to land on a moving aircraft carrier, one of the most difficult tasks for Navy pilots.
Earlier this month, the X-47B successfully landed at the air station using a tailhook to catch a cable and bring it to a quick stop, just as planes setting down on carriers have to do.
The X-47B has a wingspan of about 62 feet and weighs 14,000 pounds, versus nearly 49 feet and about 1,100 pounds for the Predator.
While Predators are typically piloted via remote control by someone in the U.S., the X-47B relies only on computer programs to tell it where to fly unless a human operator needs to step in. Eventually, one person may be able to control multiple unmanned aircraft at once, Branch said.
The group Human Rights Watch said it is troubled by what it described as a trend toward the development of fully autonomous weapons that can choose and fire upon targets with no human intervention.
"We're saying you must have meaningful human control over key battlefield decisions of who lives and who dies. That should not be left up to the weapons system itself," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch.
Developed by Northrop Grumman under a 2007 contract at a cost of $1.4 billion, the X-47B is capable of carrying weapons and is designed to be the forerunner for a drone program that will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting, according to the Navy, which has been giving updates on the project over the past few years.
The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles, versus 675 for the Predator. The Navy plans to show the drone can be refueled in flight, which would give it even greater range.
Also on HuffPost:
Boeing Phantom Ray
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's stealth Phantom Ray took to the skies for the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/05/bds_phantom_ray_first_flight_05_04_11.html" target="_hplink">first time in April 2011</a>. According to Boeing, the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/advertising/bma/unmanned/unmanned_05.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Ray can perform missions</a> such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; and electronic attack. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown. This is a "demonstrator" so there will likely be a future variation of the Ray.
General Atomics Predator Avenger
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems <a href="http://www.ga-asi.com/products/aircraft/predator_c.php" target="_hplink">Predator Avenger C</a> is a beast. According to the two-page brochure, the PAC is a "Next-Generation Multi-mission ISR and Strike Aircraft" and successor for the Predator B that can be stacked with a multitude of weaponry. <strong>Deployment</strong>: There is one <a href="http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?topicName=unmanned&id=news/awst/2011/12/19/AW_12_19_2011_p25-406500.xml&headline=USAF Plans Larger, More Capable Predator&channel=&from=topicalreports" target="_hplink">demonstration craft currently in Afghanistan</a>.
SOCOM Mini Drone Of Doom
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Yo dawg, I heard you like drones so I <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/socom-warhead-drones/" target="_hplink">put a drone in your drone</a>. One small deadly warhead-equipped mini-drone stuffed into another, to be launched from the main drone and remotely aimed at a target. <strong> Potential Deployment</strong>: This <a href="http://defensenewsstand.com/NewsStand-General/The-INSIDER-Free-Article/socom-could-have-warhead-equipped-micro-uav-by-spring-2012/menu-id-720.html" target="_hplink">warhead-equiped micro-UAV</a> could be flown by SOCOM in the skies by spring 2012.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (USA) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.avinc.com/uas/adc/switchblade/" target="_hplink">AeroVironment's Switchblade</a> is meant to be a portable, rapid deployment, beyond line-of-sight, "loitering munition" that is a "magic bullet." A bit of advice, AeroVironment: Don't describe a remote-controlled bomb as a "loitering munition" that you call "Switchblade," as it conjures up images of 1950's-style greasers loitering on street corners, flipping open switchblades idly as they wait for their favorite gals. Luckily, greasers won't be in charge of flying Switchblades. They're to be controlled by infantry and <a href="http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=7982421&&s=TOP" target="_hplink">according to the AeroVironment</a>, "Flying quietly at high speed the Switchblade delivers its onboard explosive payload with precision while minimizing collateral damage." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed.
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (USA, DARPA Funded) <strong>Description</strong>: AeroVironment is at it again. In partnership with DARPA, they've actually managed to build a human mechanically engineered version of one of nature's most amazing flying machines: the hummingbird. The <a href="http://www.avinc.com/media_gallery/" target="_hplink">Nano Hummingbird</a> is a perfect bid for James Bond-esque style spy shenanigans. Once these hit the field, we'll never look at hummingbirds the same way. "Stop looking at me! That bird is following me!" <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Within five years.
Army A160 Hummingbird Drone
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Army) <strong>Description</strong>: Though the military's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/30/us-army-hummingbird-a160-helicopter-drone_n_1176763.html?ref=technology" target="_hplink">A160 Hummingbird drone</a> doesn't resemble an actual hummingbird so much as AeroVironment's take, it is <a href="http://www.salon.com/2011/12/06/nprs_domestic_drone_commercial/" target="_hplink">raising just as many alarms</a> because of its potential to be deployed on the U.S. home front. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: May or June 2012, Afghanistan
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: Northrop Grumman <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/mq8bfirescout_navy/index.html" target="_hplink">describes the Firescout</a> as a "Transformational Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle system provides unprecedented situation awareness and precision targeting support for U.S. Armed Forces of the future. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship and at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in contact." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=237497" target="_hplink">March 2013</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (German Ministry of Defense, purchased from Northrop Grumman) <strong>Description</strong>: NG touts its <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/index.html" target="_hplink">Euro Hawk</a>, built for German Ministry of Defense, as having a "wingspan larger than a commercial airliner, endurance of more than 30 hours and a maximum altitude of more than 60,000 feet, EURO HAWK is an interoperable, modular and cost-effective replacement to the aging fleet of manned Breguet Atlantic aircraft, which have been in service since 1972 and will be retired in 2010." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: 2015, 2016 (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/assets/SIGINT_NewsRelease_101211.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>)
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: A carrier-based combat drone, <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/index.html" target="_hplink">Northrop Grumman's futuristic X-47B</a> flew in its cruise configuration <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=239278" target="_hplink">for the first time</a> on November 22, 2011. It can land with precision on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, and features twin weapons payload bays that hold up to 4,500 lbs. (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/assets/X-47B_Navy_UCAS_FactSheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>). <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/navy-killer-drone-refuel/" target="_hplink">2018</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (British) <strong>Description</strong>: BAE System's Taranis (<a href="http://www.baesystems.com/BAEProd/groups/public/documents/bae_publication/bae_pdf_taranis_fact_sheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>) is aiming to "Push the boundaries by providing advancements in low observability capability and autonomous mission systems operations demonstrating the feasibility and utility of UAVs." Such a statement starts to push the idea of fully autonomous flight from science fiction into science fact, though we're still a long way off from having an actual real debate on fully autonomous drones fighting our battles and flying our skies. Potential Deployment: TBD, test flights have been delayed to 2012.
Boeing Phantom Eye
<strong>Type</strong>: Communications <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's hydrogen-powered <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2010/07/bds_feat_phantom_eye_07_12_10.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Eye</a> is a High Altitude Long Duration Craft designed to fly at <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/11/bds_phantom_eye_11_16_11.html" target="_hplink">65,000 feet for up to four days</a>. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
<strong>Type</strong>: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/TTO/Programs/Vulture.aspx" target="_hplink">DARPA's description</a> says the "Vulture technology enables a re-taskable, persistent pseudo-satellite capability, in an aircraft package." Basically, DARPA is attempting to develop a super long duration craft capable of five year continuous flight. Think about that - the Vulture is intended to fly for up to five years continuously. If it were to launch this year it would be in the air for two Olympics. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
AVIATR: Drone To Fly Saturn's Moon
<strong>Type</strong>: Government Funded Space Exploration <strong>Description</strong>: While the proposal probably won't go through for this mission, this is an aerial drone we can really get behind. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/04/aviatr-probe-proposed-mission-titan_n_1184028.html" target="_hplink">AVIATR</a> would be a long distance drone that would fly the skies of Saturn's moon Titan. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Beyond 2020
Japan Defense Ministry Ball Drone
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (Japan) <strong>Description</strong>: Techcrunch <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/25/video-japans-defense-ministry-develops-awesome-ball-shaped-drone/" target="_hplink">tells us</a> that the drone can "stand still in mid-air, fly vertically and horizontally through narrow spaces at up to 60km/h, and (which is very cool) keep on moving when it hits the ground or a wall. Thanks to three gyro sensors in its body, the machine can keep also flying even if it's hit by an obstacle." And all for only $1,400. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed