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No pilot, no problem: Navy drone lands on carrier

An X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator performs a "touch and go" May 17, 2013 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. An aircraft does not stop moving during a touch and go. Wednesday's landing will attempt a full stop.
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An X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator performs a "touch and go" May 17, 2013 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. An aircraft does not stop moving during a touch and go. Wednesday's landing will attempt a full stop.

History was made Wednesday as an unmanned aircraft landed on an aircraft carrier for the first time.

The X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman, took off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland and was captured on the USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia.

After successfully landing and being "trapped" on the carrier, the unmanned aircraft was then launched from the vessel and landed on it again, CNBC has learned. The Department of Defense reported that a third attempt by the X-47B was called off after the drone "self-detected a navigation computer anomaly." It landed safely at NASA's Wallops Island.

The unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAS) is one of two Northrop built for the Navy to demonstrate the potential of using such drones from—and landing them on—aircraft carriers. Already, the X-47B has successfully been launched from the carrier and done so-called "touch and goes," but today's landing marked the first time the aircraft was captured on the flight deck.

The X-47B will never be put into service, however. After getting $2 billion from the Pentagon in 2000 in order to develop the aircraft, Northrop has seen budget cuts lead to the program's demise.

However, the Navy went ahead and chose Northrop's two X-47s for testing purposes. Results from the tests have helped the Navy develop the requirements it's seeking for a next generation version of the aircraft—one that can also carry weapons. That program, UCLASS, which stands for Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike Program, will seek proposals this summer.

All of the major defense players in the drone space are expected to submit bids--Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

Unlike the U.S. Air Force, which has trained a large corps of "pilots" to control unmanned aircraft, Navy ships don't have the space for that many extra personnel. The Navy has been testing ways to run the planes without as much manpower.

The X-47B is run mostly by a computer program, though the craft is monitored by a human and does not "think on its own."

Treated the Same 'On Deck' as Piloted Craft

To maintain consistency on the flight deck, where safety is paramount and confusion can be lethal, the crew will be signaling the X-47B as if there was a pilot inside.

It will be virtually the same routine as for any manned aircraft.

However, standing behind the crew will be a person watching those commands and controlling some of the aircraft's movements with a device that looks like an arm brace. You can see him in this video about 1 minute and 20 seconds in.

So what does the Navy hope to do with drones on carriers? Carry out surveillance, and potentially engage in combat as well.

The U.S. Naval Institute reports that it got a peek at the requirements the Navy will release for bidders in the UCLASS competition. The plans "call for an aircraft that can field a 3,000 pounds worth of payload, including 1,000 pounds of air-to-surface weapons—including the 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bomb II."

The maximum cost of running such an aircraft for 24 hours straight can't exceed $150 million, according to the USNI report, which compared it to the $67 million to fly a manned F-18. However, the manned F-18 can only be in the air half as long as the drone.

'Game Changer'

Finally, a thorough analysis in Popular Science of what the X-47B means to the future of Naval operations calls it a "game changer."

America will face different threats in 2020 than it did in 2001.

"Whatever aircraft comes out of the future UCLASS program…will likely be tailless and stealthy just like the X-47B, have a longer effective range than the F/A-18s that the Navy currently has in its air wing, and could serve as an important strategic counterbalance to recent advances in the range of anti-ship ballistic missiles like China's DF-21 'carrier killer'," reports Clay Dillow, referring to China's medium range ballistic missile program.

Dillow called it "an iPod moment...the X-47B isn't just an aircraft, it's a whole new paradigm for naval aviation."

—By Jane Wells, CNBC. John Torrisi contributed to this report.

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