The Navy’s Stealth Drone is Stuck at the Beach

The X-47B stealth drone that made history yesterday after landing aboard an aircraft carrier is today sitting on a little-known NASA airfield on the Virginia coast after it had to cancel a third landing aboard the ship. One of the Northrop Grumman-made jet’s three, redundant navigation computers failed as the plane was on final approach, ...

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy

The X-47B stealth drone that made history yesterday after landing aboard an aircraft carrier is today sitting on a little-known NASA airfield on the Virginia coast after it had to cancel a third landing aboard the ship.

One of the Northrop Grumman-made jet's three, redundant navigation computers failed as the plane was on final approach, four miles behind the carrier. That caused it to automatically "wave off" and fly above the carrier, awaiting instructions from its human supervisors.

The people in charge of the jet chose to order the plane to immediately land at Wallops Island spaceport (the airfield is actually on the mainland) -- the planned landing site for the jet if any problems were encountered during yesterday's flight tests, conducted about 80 miles off the coast of Virginia. (The ship was crowded with onlookers, and service officials wanted to take no chances with getting a multi-ton flying robot to land on a 200-foot floating runway.)

The X-47B stealth drone that made history yesterday after landing aboard an aircraft carrier is today sitting on a little-known NASA airfield on the Virginia coast after it had to cancel a third landing aboard the ship.

One of the Northrop Grumman-made jet’s three, redundant navigation computers failed as the plane was on final approach, four miles behind the carrier. That caused it to automatically "wave off" and fly above the carrier, awaiting instructions from its human supervisors.

The people in charge of the jet chose to order the plane to immediately land at Wallops Island spaceport (the airfield is actually on the mainland) — the planned landing site for the jet if any problems were encountered during yesterday’s flight tests, conducted about 80 miles off the coast of Virginia. (The ship was crowded with onlookers, and service officials wanted to take no chances with getting a multi-ton flying robot to land on a 200-foot floating runway.)

The plane will now sit at Wallops until the Navy can fly it back to its home station across the Chesapeake Bay at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Navy officials hope to get the jet there before Monday so they can do another round of flight tests aboard the carrier. If they can’t figure out what went wrong with "Salty Dog 502," they’ll have to use its twin, Salty Dog 501, for Monday’s tests.

Engineers are "working through the data right now," said Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman’s program manager for the drone, during a phone call with reporters on July 11.

Johnson said it was likely a "minor issue" that can be resolved by resetting the drone’s computers.

Still, it doesn’t sound like the Navy knows exactly when the jet will leave the airstrip at the little known rocket-launching site on coastal Virginia.

"The conversation on how and when we get 502 out of Wallops is an active, dynamic, and ongoing engineering discussion to determine the best path forward for that," said Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the Navy’s top officer for drone development. "We’re gonna launch air vehicle 2 [502] out of Wallops island and bring it back to Pax River when the weather’s appropriate, when I have the right people."

Still, this is a sign that the jet’s systems performed correctly, even when something went wrong. Remember, the Navy doesn’t have humans remotely controlling these stealthy drones. Instead, humans simply tell the planes to execute certain missions or tasks like landing; the drones figure out how to perform them. In this case, the plane knew something was wrong with itself and called off its own landing and reported the problem to its handlers. This is the future of unmanned warfare: jets that fly missions on their own, working with humans instead of directly controlled by them.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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