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10 Jul, 2013 17:09

Unmanned drone makes first landing on US Navy aircraft carrier (VIDEO)

Unmanned drone makes first landing on US Navy aircraft carrier (VIDEO)

The experimental X-47B drone has successfully landed on a US Navy aircraft carrier for the first time since its May launch. This means the US can now launch drones overseas without needing to use bases in other countries.

The unmanned  X-47B aircraft, which is a prototype drone the size of a fighter jet developed by the American defense technology company Northrop Grumman, took off from a naval air station in Maryland on Wednesday. The drone then landed on the USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia.

The drone successfully performed a maneuver known as “arrested landing,” which involved catching a wire on board the ship with a deployed tail hook, bringing the aircraft to a quick stop.

The task is considered to be one of the most challenging for a human pilot, due to constant movement of the ship and the turbulent air around it. The procedure was performed exclusively by the drone’s built-in computer program. 

This May 13, 2013 US Navy handout image shows an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator being towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (AFP Photo/US Navy)

If the drone ever fails to catch the wire, it is said to be able to perform a touch-and-go stunt to try to land again. The X-47B made nine such maneuvers in May, when it was successfully catapulted from an aircraft carrier for the first time.

The US navy saluted the drone’s test, with Rear Admiral Mat Winter calling it “historic event” worth mentioning in “history books.” However, the drone’s capabilities have raised concerns over possible expansion of Washington’s controversial overseas drone program.

The successful launch of the drone prototype would likely prompt the Navy to go ahead with its plans to order a fleet of carrier-based drones. According to Winter – the US Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons – such drones could begin operating by 2020. 

According to the US Navy, Wednesday’s maneuver marks the first instance of a tailless, unmanned drone landing on a modern aircraft carrier. The demonstration was the final of three at-sea test periods for the X-47B drone, all of which took place in the past eight months.

The unmanned drone spent several weeks aboard various aircraft carriers in previous months. The US Navy completed deck operations aboard the USS Harry S. Truman in December 2012, and aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in May.

"We have been using the same [carrier] landing technology for more than 50 years now and the idea that we can take a large UAV and operate in that environment is fascinating," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager.

It also means the US would soon be capable of launching drone missions overseas without the need to obtain permission to use other countries’ ground bases. Such missions could vary from around-the-clock surveillance to targeted strikes, as the $1.4 billion X-47B is said to be able to carry missiles.

This May 14, 2013 US Navy handout image shows an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flying over the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (AFP Photo/US Navy)

According to the Navy, new generation drones would be at least three times the range of the notorious Predators, while having the capability to carry out programmed missions without human intervention. They would rely on advanced flight control software and precision GPS navigation, but retain the option of a remote control by a human operator when needed.

Northrop Grumman X-47B
Max speed: ~Mach 0.9 (~685 mph, ~1,100 km/h)
Service ceiling: 40,000ft (12,000 m)
Length: 38.2 ft (11.63 m)
Range: >2,100 nmi (>3,889 km)
Wingspan: 62.1 ft (18.92 m)
Weight: 14,000 lb (6,350 kg)

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator
Max speed: 135 mph (217 km/h)
Service ceiling: 25,000 ft (7,620 m)
Length: 27 ft (8.22 m)
Range: 675 nmi (1,100 km)
Wingspan: 48.7 ft (14.8 m)
Weight: 1,130 lb (512 kg)

The prototype X-47B can already boast reaching an altitude of 12km, and is said to be able to travel in a range of about 4000km. The US Navy plans to demonstrate that the drone can be refueled in flight, which would increase its range even further.

The new drone and the research around it have already come under criticism amid concerns that deadly attacks could get out of hand without a pilot to control the aircraft.

Human Rights Watch has particularly protested the development of drones that carry weapons and are fully autonomous.

“We’re saying you need to draw the line when you have a fully autonomous system that is weaponized. 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,” Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Maintenence personel check a Predator drone operated by U.S. Office of Air and Marine (OAM), before its surveillance flight near the Mexican border on March 7, 2013 from Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona. (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)

The UN Human Rights Commission has published a report calling for a worldwide moratorium on the “testing, production, assembly, transfer, acquisition, deployment and use” of autonomous weapons systems until an international conference can develop rules for their use. The systems, which are referred to as “lethal autonomous robotics” (LARs) in the report, “should not have the power of life and death over human beings,” said Christof Heyns, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions.

Washington’s use of Reaper and Predator drones in targeted strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen has been a subject of international criticism amid reports of widespread civilian casualties. Both US and foreign critics have said that the controversial drone program is conducted with inadequate oversight.

In May, President Obama announced plans to scale back drone strikes in foreign lands, only deploying the unmanned aircraft when a threat was “continuing and imminent.”

But UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, said that any justification cited in international law by US officials for the use of lethal drone strikes is not accepted outside the United States. Emmerson, who has been investigating the US drone program since January, also said that the American monopoly on unmanned aircraft technology is “over,” and the US should engage in “a dialogue” on the international legal framework surrounding the use of drones.