The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator has taken yet another step on the path towards unmanned aircraft operating amongst piloted aircraft on a carrier deck with its first ever steam-powered catapult launch. While the inaugural launch was conducted on land at a shore-based catapult facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, it gives the team confidence as it progresses towards a planned launch from a carrier next year.
The catapult launch took place on November 29, 2012, and proved the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B was structurally up to the task of withstanding the rigors of such a launch in a carrier environment. It also gave the team another opportunity to demonstrate the precision of the Control Display Unit (CDU), which was used to maneuver the pilotless aircraft into the catapult.
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After launch, the X-47B demonstrator flew over Chesapeake Bay, performing a number of maneuvers that simulated tasks it will need to perform when landing on a carrier. These included flying in a typical ship holding pattern, and carrying out a carrier approach flight profile.
Further shore-based catapult launches are planned over the next few weeks, but an X-47B has already been hoisted aboard the USS Harry S. Truman at Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia, in readiness for a series of deck handling trials that will evaluate the performance of the CDU in a carrier environment.
These trials are expected to run until mid December, with the first carrier-based launch, recovery and air traffic control operation demonstrations planned for 2013.
The inaugural catapult launch can be seen in the video below.