With the support of Team Edwards, the United States Navy came one step closer to seamlessly integrating the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator into aircraft carrier operations. The first test phase, which validated the X-47B’s airworthiness, wrapped up May 15, 2012, after more than two years of testing.
Flight test at Edwards was so successful, that the aircraft was able to begin carrier suitability testing before making the journey on a flat-bed truck to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where beginning this summer, the second phase of testing will be carried out.
“The Air Force Flight Test Center was clearly a major partner to Northrop Grumman and the Navy,” said Brooks McKinney, Northrup Grumman public relations senior manager. “It was a great team; a very solid, positive team with everyone focused on getting the aircraft into the best shape and flying as often as possible.”
Edwards will continue to shape the X-47B program, as the base will send support personnel to assist in the next phase of testing.
“The Air Force X-47 team did a wonderful job hosting the program and even lent a hand in the actual test results by providing some world-class maintenance and logistics test and evaluation support,” said Lt. Col. Landon Henderson, Global Vigilance Combined Test Force director. “The Navy was so impressed by our Air Force testers they actually drafted them to help out with the program. The Air Force is assigning logistics test and evaluation troops full time to Pax [River] and pulling them in from the 412th Maintenance Group here at Edwards.”
During the program’s time at Edwards, which spanned from January 2010 to May 2012, the CTF was responsible for project management oversight on behalf of the 412th Test Wing and made sure that the test program was successfully integrated into the Edwards community.
According to Tighe Parmenter, who is the Manager of Business Development for the UCAS-D program, the X-47B flew 23 times at Edwards in various aircraft configurations and flawlessly navigated the ranges of the flight envelope. Another accomplishment for the program while at Edwards was demonstrating effective command and control, which allowed for the reclassification of the X-47B from “unproven” to “experimental.”
The remote location of Edwards and its 308,000 acres of land provided the ideal location, resources and infrastructure for the X-47B aircraft’s airworthiness test phase. Of particular importance was the unique surface of the 44-acre Rodgers Dry Lake Bed, which provided the Navy’s program with a safety net, in the event the aircraft experienced an in-flight emergency and was forced to land.
“Edwards was ideal due to the runway and lakebed landing surface arrangement, which has helped many programs perform first flights. The length and width of the main base runways, as well as the ample landing surfaces on the lakebed, provided a lot of options for recovery of the air vehicles in case it ran into trouble, which they never did,” said Henderson.
According to Henderson, when the X-47B took off, it was immediately able to enter its assigned airspace free from other traffic. Not only did this deconfliction reduce risks to other ongoing test programs, but it also allowed the team to build confidence in the vehicle’s capability to perform as expected.
The U.S. Navy’s UCAS-D program, which originally began as a program under the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, seeks to prove that an autonomous aerial vehicle can seamlessly integrate into the highly structured, rapid and demanding operations onboard an aircraft carrier.
Carrier operations require precision, calculated lightning-fast decisions, and the ability to communicate by sending and receiving visual cues to successfully carry out the mission — a unique challenge for the UCAS-D program.
With successful completion of the airworthiness test phase at Edwards, the X-47B program took a giant step forward in making that integration possible.
“We became confident in the airplane’s performance and began doing carrier suitability work. We emulated how testing would go at Pax River and the ship,” said Parmenter. “The aircraft performed touch-and-go’s and heavy-weight landings. It also turned downwind, turned in pattern and came back around to do a landing, which may seem fairly benign but it’s rather unusual for unmanned aerial systems.”
According to Parmenter, once the X-47B gets new software it will begin preparing for two upcoming carrier demonstrations scheduled for December of this year and April of 2013. During these, the X-47B will validate its ability to land on the moving flight deck of a carrier and seamlessly blend in to the environment dominated by visual cues.
“The carrier environment is currently driven by hand signals and voice communications. The UCAS-D team must translate that visual world into unambiguous digital instructions so there is precision communication at all times between the aircraft and ship, and is prepared to respond correctly to all situations,” said McKinney.
Additionally, an autonomous aerial refueling demonstration is scheduled for 2014.
With only 11 aircraft carriers in the United States Navy inventory, aerial refueling would give them the capability to go just about anywhere in the world. Also, the tailless, fighter-sized X-47 is capable of carrying a payload of up to 4,500 pounds giving the Navy a potential strike capability.
“The Navy wants to make sure the airplane will work with the aircraft carrier — it has to work right the first time. The design must be carrier compliant and be absolutely integrated seamlessly to the aircraft carrier environment. No special rules; same rules of engagement; rhythm of the flight deck; space limitations; landing; getting in line and taking off,” said Parmenter. “This aircraft really represents a much more autonomous vehicle. It establishes a whole new confidence level and really advances the technology.”