Navy Drone Makes First Aircraft Carrier Landing

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Navy Drone Makes First Aircraft Carrier Landing
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An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator conducts a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in May.

A robotic drone made military history today (July 10) with its first unmanned landing on a moving aircraft carrier at sea, U.S. Navy officials said.

An X-47B plane nicknamed "Salty Dog 502" touched down on the USS George H.W. Bush, off the coast of Virginia, in a so-called arrested landing, a maneuver designed for making a quick stop on a flight deck. With no tail and a wide wingspan of more than 62 feet (19 meters), the Navy's robotic Top Gun resembles — and has been mistaken for — a flying saucer.

"Landing on a carrier's flight deck is one of the most challenging tasks for a naval aviator — one that takes extensive training and regular practice to perfect," Jaime Engdahl, program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System, wrote in a blog post ahead of the demonstration.

Today's feat follows the success of X-47B's earlier tests at sea, including nine touch-and-go landings aboard the USS George H. W. Bush in May, in which the plane would touch down on the runway without coming to a full stop before taking off again. The plane, which is made by Northrop Grumman, also completed arrested landings on a mock flight deck on land ahead of today's milestone.

While the X-47B itself is not intended to go into operational use, military officials hope the technology will lead to a future fleet of carrier-capable drones that can replace or serve alongside fighter jets.

"It isn't very often you get a glimpse of the future. Today, those of us aboard USS George H.W. Bush got that chance as we witnessed the X-47B make its first ever arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement. "The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers."

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