Unmanned aerial vehicles aren’t brand-spanking new to naval aviation; UAVs the Navy uses include the rotary-wing Fire Scout and the RQ-2A Pioneer. But the next big thing in unmanned flight at sea will be an aircraft that can take off from and land on a carrier. Several companies are in the process of making that happen.
The big names in flight are displaying wares that they hope become the backbone of the Navy’s collection of UAVs at the Sea Air Space Expo at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Look at the pictures above. At left is Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, a UAV that made its first flight in February. The one on the right is Boeing’s X-45C. The one in the center, while not labeled, is almost certainly the X-47B — it’s at the Huntington Ingalls Industries display; HII is a Northrop Grumman spin-off, and the airframe has the same shape as the X-47B UCAS. It’s tough to tell in this picture, but it’s shown positioned on the flight deck of the carrier Gerald R. Ford, a ship being built in Newport News, Va.
The HII picture merits another look because, well, the whole thing is a mock up of what may someday be the face of unmanned naval aviation on the flight deck a non-existent ship. Sitting nearby the now hypothetical UAV is an F-35C Lightning II joint strike fighter. In case you’re keeping track, that’s an aircraft that had not joined the fleet sitting on the flight deck of a carrier that’s under construction near an another plane that’s currently being tested. Like flying cars and undersea bubble cities, it’s all fantasy, for now at least.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus emphasized during his luncheon speech Monday that unmanned craft will play a prominent role in the Navy’s future.
“Over the next decade, we will move aggressively to develop a family of unmanned systems including underwater systems that will be able to operate for a extended periods of time in support of our ships, our expeditionary units and our special warfare teams, and a low-observable, carrier-based intelligence surveillance reconnaissance strike unmanned air system,” he said.