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.

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.

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