The X-47B has already been tested on land in conditions meant to mimic operations on a carrier deck, including a catapult launch, but operating on a real carrier crowded with people and equipment presents fresh challenges. For example, the X-47B must be tested for electromagnetic interference, in other words, making sure that the aircraft’s electronic systems don’t clash with the myriad radar and emitters that are on a ship.
“While we go through a rigorous test program, you really learn a lot when you’re at sea and you’re validating your system against the true environment of the carrier,” says Johnson.
If all goes well with these tests, the Navy will then be ready for its first at-sea flight. This will likely be a short affair, according to Johnson, and will start with a catapult launch and end with the aircraft landing not on the carrier, but on firm ground. Later that year, the X-47B will also perform an “arrested landing,” meaning it will land back on the aircraft carrier.
Another key flight test will take place in 2014, when the X-47 demonstrates that it can perform autonomous aerial refueling. Currently, the craft has a range of around 3,200km (2,000 miles) and can stay aloft for six hours. But for effective operations, the Navy would like it to stay aloft for longer.
Even if all those tests go smoothly, that doesn’t mean the X-47B will actually be deployed. The stealthy, aircraft is still merely a prototype. The Navy soon plans to launch a new program to develop an operational unmanned combat aircraft, which will involve fielding up to half a dozen armed drones on carriers by the end of the decade as part of what’s called the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program.
Early next year, the Navy will hold a competition to build the new drone. That means Northrop, the incumbent, will have to compete against other companies, including Lockheed Martin, which built the stealthy RQ-170 (famously captured by Iran), and General Atomics, which makes the familiar Reaper and Predator drones, and Boeing, which developed the X-45, a one-time competitor to Northrop’s drone.
Even as a prototype, however, the X-47B’s upcoming launch from an aircraft carrier, the “heart of US naval aviation”, marks a significant watershed for drones, says Singer.
“It’s one of the places where we haven’t seen them yet.”
Ultimately, the X-47B’s upcoming flight is not about proving that drones can work—that’s already been done—but expanding how and where they are used. “The Wright Brothers moment already happened,” says Singer. “Now we’re in the equivalent of 1920s and 1930s.”