Northrop Grumman’s sexily badass X-47B unmanned combat air system made its first flight ever on Friday, circling a desert runway a couple times all by itself before successfully not crashing. Northrop seemed pretty happy about the way things went:
“The flight provided test data to verify and validate system software for guidance and navigation, and the aerodynamic control of the tailless design. The X-47B aircraft will remain at Edwards AFB for flight envelope expansion before transitioning to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. later this year. There, the system will undergo additional tests to validate its readiness to begin testing in the maritime and carrier environment.”
‘Flight envelope expansion’ means that they’re going to see how crazy the X-47B can get in the air. After that, they’re going to get it ready for its intended purpose, which is carrier operations. We know that drones are already pretty good at precision maneuvers, but I hear carrier landings are especially tricky. I’m optimistic (I always am about robots), but seeing this thing manage an autonomous carrier touchdown is going to go a long way towards convincing skeptics that drones really can function on a level similar to even the most skilled humans in many aspects of combat aircraft control.