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.
Offiziere.ch 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.