Air Power’s Robotic Future: An Interview with Northrop Grumman’s Carl Johnson


Categorie: Air, David Axe, Industry, Naval, Robots |
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X-47B. Northrop Grumman photo.

X-47B. Northrop Grumman photo.


The future of aerial warfare was on dramatic display on Feb. 4 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. At around 2:00 PM local time, a 38-foot-long, bat-shaped, jet-powered robotic aircraft lifted off from the runway and climbed to 5,000 feet. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle orbited the airfield for 30 minutes before descending to a flawless, autonomous landing.

It was the first flight for the first X-47B prototype designed and built by Northrop Grumman, and a preview of coming decades during which highly-autonomous robotic warplanes will increasingly replace remotely-piloted flying robots and traditional, manned planes. The X-47, more than a decade in development, represents the vehicle portion of the Navy’s $1-billion Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program — essentially, an experiment in flying robots from a carrier deck. An X-47B prototype is slated to go to sea sometime in 2013.

The first program to field an operational, autonomous, pilotless combat aircraft should be the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike. UCLASS is still just a concept, but is working towards a 2018 fielding date. Boeing and General Atomics have received UCLASS study contracts, but Northrop is the clear frontrunner thanks to the X-47. That means the X-47 is likely to form the basis of the world’s first, true robotic warplane. spoke to Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of program management, about the X-47 and the implications of warplane autonomy. What follows are excerpts from that revealing conversation.

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One Response to “ Air Power’s Robotic Future: An Interview with Northrop Grumman’s Carl Johnson”

  1. Wow that plane is amazing, it really is, it looks like its something from a movie or outer space! I love this political junkie’s thoughts on things. This plane could change the playing field of aerial combat forever.

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