Computer glitch forces X-47B Navy drone onshore after historic carrier landing

Computer glitch forces X-47B Navy drone onshore after historic carrier landing
The United States Navy made history Thursday when it successfully landed its first autonomous drone on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, but a computer malfunction made the mission nowhere near as successful as the Pentagon had hoped.

The flagship flight of the Navy’s “Salty Dog 502” started off as a success on Thursday when around 100 spectators onboard the USS George H. W. Bush watched the experimental, unmanned X-47B aircraft launch itself off the aircraft carrier and then snag a wire that ran across the deck of the ship before coming to a quick stop.

The aircraft then successfully performed a second drill, but during a third attempt the mission was aborted.

Rear Admiral Mat Winter of the Navy’s drone program told Reuters that the craft was airborne when the drone’s self-diagnosis indicated a system malfunction. That forced the Navy’s drone operator onboard the USS Bush to redirect the UAV to a reserve landing site on an island off the coast of Virginia.

"The aircraft had been catapulted, it was airborne, it was in the pattern ... it was on final approach about 4 miles out ... hook was down, gear was down," Winter told Reuters.

"As it's supposed to do, it continues to check the health and status of all its subsystems, and that's when it identified one of its navigation computer's anomalous behavior," he said.

Salty Dog 502 successfully landed at Wallops Island Air Field off the Virginia coast as a result. Winter said that the Navy intends to do further analysis before the drone is fully adopted.

Another X-47B, the second of two owned by Navy, is likely to be tested on Monday.

"Based on what we know right now, we fully expect to either operate Air Vehicle 1 or Air Vehicle 2 out to the ship to continue to finalize the objectives for X-47B," Winter said.

In a statement to Reuters, Winter added that his team working on the drone program "truly explored, discovered and matured the connectivity, digitization, algorithms and secret sauce."

Northrop Grumman Vice President Carl Johnson added to the Los Angeles Times, “It was a great day,” despite the aircraft built by his company performing shy of what both the contractor and Pentagon had hoped to see.

"A lot of success based on having a really integrated Navy industry team,” Johnson said.

Once the Navy fully adopts a drone program that lets unmanned aerial vehicles by deployed from aircraft carriers, the United States can look towards utilizing a system that could potentially allow it to launch armed drones overseas without relying on foreign bases. Currently the United States’ armed drones are housed and launched from sites in the South Asia and Africa, but once-friendly allies like Pakistan have expressed regret with letting the US continuously participate in what many consider a costly blow to sovereignty. Once perfected, though, the Navy could look towards loading entire ships with drones, then with the push of a button launch them to conduct fully autonomous missions for hours at a time.

"It isn't very often you get a glimpse of the future,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement earlier this week of the Salty Dog 502. "The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers."