While impressive, unmanned flight is just one of the capabilities required of the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) if it is to enter service with the U.S. Navy. Prior to and after any flights, the aircraft also needs to be safely maneuvered around the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier. Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy have completed the first tests of a wireless, handheld device that will be used to do just that.

In its first shore-based trials carried out earlier this month at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, the handheld device, called a Control Display Unit (CDU), was used to control the X-47B’s engine thrust to roll the aircraft forward, brake and stop, and use its nose wheel steering to execute the tight, precision turns required to maneuver the aircraft into a catapult or out of the landing area following a landing.

Like piloted aircraft, in practice the X-47B will be directed around the carrier deck by a flight deck director (aka a “yellow shirt”) standing in front of the aircraft using traditional hand signals. However, instead of an onboard pilot, a deck operator standing behind the flight deck director will use the CDU to control the aircraft based on the director’s instructions.

The test team also expects the CDU to come in useful in further shore-based carrier suitability testing of the X-47B.

"Instead of towing the aircraft out to the flight line, we can now start the X-47B outside its hangar, then use the CDU to taxi it out to the runway, or into a catapult for launch," said Daryl Martis, Northrop Grumman's UCAS-D test director.. "Use of the CDU is the most time-efficient way to move the X-47B into the catapult or disengage it from the arresting gear after landing."

The first shore-based catapults of the X-47B are set for later this month and will be followed by hoisting it aboard an aircraft carrier to test the performance of the CDU in an actual carrier environment. Demonstrations of full launch, recovery, and air traffic control operations are slated for 2013.

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