Navy UCAS-D Achieves Milestone aboard Eisenhower

The test means the Navy is one step closer to demonstrating the first carrier-based recoveries and launches of an autonomous, low-observable relevant unmanned aircraft.


To support an autonomous vehicle, PMA-268 has modified shipboard equipment so that the UCAS-D X-47B air vehicle, mission operator and ship operators are on the same digital network. For current fleet aircraft, the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), who is charged with safe recovery of aircraft aboard the ship, uses voice commands and visual signals to communicate with a pilot on final approach. Since a UAS cannot reliably respond to voice and visual signals, the LSO's equipment communicates directly with the aircraft through the digital network via a highly reliable interface. Similar digital communication capability has been integrated with the ship's primary flight control ("tower") and Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) facilities.

Most importantly, the UAS operator's equipment, installed in one of the carrier's ready rooms, is integrated with the very same network.

In addition to communications, an unmanned system requires highly precise and reliable navigation to operate around the ship. This first arrested landing of the F/A-18D surrogate aircraft aboard the Eisenhower was enabled by integrating Precision Global Positioning System (PGPS) capabilities into the ship and the aircraft.

According to Engdahl, these tests demonstrate that PGPS landing technologies and the carrier segment hardware and software are mature and ready to support actual unmanned operations with the X-47B. In addition, these capabilities have the potential to make manned aircraft operations safer and more efficient.

"Our team has worked vigorously over the past five years to modify and develop systems required to operate unmanned aircraft around and aboard a carrier," said Adam Anderson, team lead for UCAS-D Aviation/Ship Integration System Build, who has worked on the program since 2006. "This was a very complex and challenging task that required innovative, hard-working and dedicated individuals to get the job done."

The first experiments supporting unmanned carrier operations were conducted in 2002 followed by at-sea testing of a King Air in 2005. With the basic concept proven, the UCAS-D team began the detailed design of the carrier integration in 2007. The PMA-268/NAVAIR team worked closely with experts from PEO (Carriers) and the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to determine the details of system installation on a carrier, while working to minimize impact to ongoing missions and capabilities aboard the ship. Initial capability of the ship equipment was verified in January 2010 during testing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

In fall 2010, ship modifications began on the Eisenhower. The UCAS-D team worked closely with ship's company personnel to lessen disruption to other activities required for normal operations and maintenance of the ship. Initial surrogate testing took place during the ship's sea trials the week of June 13, which validated the system's readiness for carrier landings.

"This was truly a team effort with our industry partners, including Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, L-3 Communications, SAIC, ARINC and Sierra Nevada Corporation, PEO Carriers, NAVSEA and, of course, the crew of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower," Engdahl added. "The exceptional support and collaboration of the entire team has set us up very well to achieve our ultimate milestone –autonomous landing of an actual unmanned, low-observable relevant aircraft on the aircraft carrier in 2013."

The UCAS-D program continues ship integration and X-47B flight test activities in preparation for sea trials in 2013. Flight testing is underway at Edwards Air Force Base and will transition to Pax River later this year.

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