Drone on Deck
Navy UCAS program turns focus to carrier landings
By DANIEL P. TAYLOR, Special Correspondent
Crawl, Walk, Run
Launched Airborne Surveillance
and Strike (UCLASS) aerial system,
which the Navy envisions as the
next-generation unmanned strike
fighter and intelligence, surveillance
and reconnaissance (ISR) asset that
could materialize by the end of the
decade. Some are even calling it a
But before the Navy can get to
UCLASS, it needs to demonstrate the
key capability of operating it on a carrier, which is where UCAS comes in.
“Our purpose as the demonstrator is really learning those lessons,”
Blottenberger said. “We have developed models for how the aircraft will behave.
“Certainly we’re learning about this shape that we
have — the tailless shape with some flush-mounted air
data sensors,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll be flying it
with its own air data system. So a lot of the technology
we’re maturing through this, and those lessons will
feed into future programs, UCLASS being the primary.”
The first flight of UCAS was a “very important mile-
stone to us,” Blottenberger said. “This was a culmina-
tion event for us of a lot of hard work, and it’s always
really rewarding to see a first, to really reach a mile-
stone you can see and feel and touch. And I’ll tell you,
it really performed well.”
The first flight was delayed a few months, largely
due to uncooperative weather and a brief technical
issue, but the delay should not have any major effect
on the program, according to Blottenberger.
“We’ve been able to mitigate it,” he said.
While not necessarily the easy part, first flight also is
not the most challenging obstacle the program will have
to overcome. Figuring out how to land an unmanned
drone on a carrier and work it into the tight flight deck
schedule with other manned aircraft is a “very complex
problem to solve,” Blottenberger said.
Northrop Grumman is taking a gradual, incremental approach to
the hurdles that await its Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator program.
■ Part of the issue is learning how to simply move the aircraft on
the carrier flight deck.
■ Another part is interfacing the unmanned air system with carrier systems.
■ Yet another part is landing an unmanned fixed-wing system on
a moving target — the carrier deck.
The Navy has finally gotten the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) off the ground. Program officials now must figure out how to
land a tailless drone on a busy carrier and integrate it
seamlessly with flight deck operations.
The Northrop Grumman-built X-47B UCAS demonstrator aircraft took flight for the first time in February,
and since then the program has completed more
flights, all in the range of 28 to 45 minutes apiece, according to Don Blottenberger, deputy program manager for UCAS. All of the flights covered basic flying
qualities with the aircraft.
A big test for the program will come later this year,
when UCAS software is loaded on surrogate aircraft — an
F/A- 18 Hornet and a Beechcraft King Air twin-turboprop
aircraft — for tests at an aircraft carrier.
“We’re doing flight tests at [Naval Air Station Patuxent
River, Md.] to get them ready,” Blottenberger said. “The
plan is to take the F- 18 all the way down to touchdown
with X- 47 software. It’s risk-reduction activities.”
Demonstrating that an unmanned, fixed-wing drone
can land on the carrier and operate on a busy flight deck
is the main reason the Navy brought about the UCAS
program. It is a precursor to the Unmanned Carrier