The Navy’s X-47B killer drone is about to get a lot more lethal. Nine months after the 38-foot long, bat-shaped flying robot took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California for its very first flight, the Navy has announced it will add an aerial refueling capability to at least one of the two X-47 prototypes sometime in 2014.
The decision to add refueling software and equipment was published on the federal government’s business opportunity website and first reported by InsideDefense. (Alas, the piece is behind a firewall.)
How big a deal is this? In a word, very.
After all, what makes the X-47B unique is the fact that it’ll be the first drone to perform one of aviation’s hardest maneuvers: taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. And drones capable of taking on more gas in-flight could extend, by a huge margin, the range at which the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers can strike land and sea targets. That in turn should help the expensive flattops avoid the submarines, strike planes, ballistic missiles and other defenses that nations such as China are building specifically to threaten American carriers.
The key to this range increase is the pilot. Or, more to the point, the absence of a pilot.