Today’s unmanned robotic planes only seem advanced. A decade after the CIA and the Air Force tucked a Hellfire missile under the wing of a Predator drone, much hasn’t actually changed: pilots in air-conditioned boxes remotely control much of the armed drone fleet; the robo-planes are easy for an enemy to spot; the weapons they fire weigh about the same; as much as they love the skies, they take refuge on dry land; and they’re built around traditional airframes like planes and helicopters. Yawn.
All this is starting to change. Drones are moving out to sea — above it and below it. They’re growing increasingly autonomous, no longer reliant on a pilot with a joystick staring at video feeds from their cameras. They’re getting stealthier; the payloads they carry are changing; and they’re going global. They’re pushing humans out of the gondolas of blimps. And the laboratories of the drones of the future aren’t only owned by American defense contractors, they’re in Israel and China and elsewhere, too.
Of course, there are other advancements as well: new model drones fly longer and wield better cameras. But those are routine improvements, like your smartphone rolling out upgrades to its operating system. Here’s a look at the more ambitious ways drones are getting re-imagined.
Northrop Grumman X-47B
The U.S. Navy is at the forefront of drone development. Its most ambitious project is to land a robotic plane on an aircraft carrier with minimal human involvement. It’s among aviation’s hardest maneuvers, one that no current drone on Planet Earth can execute. Next year, the Navy will program its X-47B — a batwing-shaped robot — to land on the deck of the U.S.S. George Washington off the coast of Maryland to see if it can be done. All with a click of a mouse.
If the X-47B can pull this off, it’ll be a sea change (pardon the pun). The X-47B is a demonstration model, not the Navy’s carrier-based drone of the future. By 2018, the Navy hopes, a successful X-47B will yield to the UCLASS program, for Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System. The name is actually pretty descriptive: If it works as planned — again, a big if — the Navy will have robotic eyes in the sky way out into blue waters, capable of spying on suspicious maritime behavior and attacking targets they spot. The effort ranks as one of the most significant in the history of drones.
Already, the X47B can refuel in mid-air, giving it a long, long seaborne flight time. Oh, and it looks like an alien spaceship. No big deal.
Photo: Jared Soares/Wired.com