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The Drone Index: Northrop Grumman X-47B

April 18, 2015

US X-47B

It’s the redemption of all UAVs. Proof that unmanned systems can replace piloted flight for good. The harbinger of a coming age.

The X-47B.

The X-47B is a prototype carrier-based “strike fighter,” the cutting edge of the ambitious unmanned combat air system (UCAS) program. The best part about Northrop Grumman’s baby is very little information about it is secret. Even its dimensions aren’t classified, being slightly greater than the US Navy’s reigning combat aircraft, the F/A-18.

There are only two X-47B’s in existence. Both achieve flight via programmed commands and GPS assistance. A human operator is only needed to monitor performance. (The original X-47A was meant for the US Air Force, the “B” is for the US Navy.)

The X-47B’s diamond shaped airframe that contains its retractable landing gear is 38.2 feet long. The wingspan is 62.1 ft. As a carrier-based system its wings fold inward, reducing its width to 30.9 ft.

Its origins date to a 2007 contract awarded to Northrop Grumman by the Naval Air Systems Command for unmanned demonstrators. R&D was carried out at a swift pace. Initial testing was begun by 2011. By 2012 the X-47B was taking off from an air strip. The following year, on May 14, 2013, X-47B successfully taxied and launched from the flight deck of the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) and flew for 65 minutes.

US X-47B 02

The X-47B being loaded onto the deck of the USS Harry Truman on November 26, 2012. A month later, on December 9, it taxies on the carrier’s flight deck. Four months later it’s launched by catapult and takes flight in front of visiting journalists. (Via US Navy.)

The occasion was highly publicized and footage from the historic occasion can be viewed online. The X-47B, powered by a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220U, has flown from two other aircraft carriers, the USS Harry Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The X-47B’s performance is impressive. Its ceiling reaches beyond 40,000 ft and it can travel 3,900 kilometers on six hours of continuous subsonic flight. So far the X-47B’s payload is questionable, with only two hard points for ordnance.

On April 15, 2015, the X-47B successfully refueled in midair. Connecting with a privately-owned K-707 tanker above Chesapeake Bay. But wait a minute, the X-47B shouldn’t be expected to wage war soon. In fact, it never will. It won’t perform ISR missions either.

As an experimental platform, in the ensuing decade the X-47B’s pros and cons will be assessed for the creation of a newer, sleeker, stealthier UCAS. In the meantime, the US Navy are adopting the F-35C as the last manned carrier-based strike aircraft model. Then a new drone arrives to replace it

This time–or by that time–it’s a genuine intelligent fighting machine.