An F/A-18D Hornet makes the first arrested landing of a surrogate aircraft emulating an unmanned vehicle aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower July 2 in the Atlantic.
A test pilot and backseat naval flight officer were aboard the
aircraft for safety, but the computer systems on Eisenhower
and in the Hornet had complete control of the aircraft, which
used systems developed as part of the Unmanned Combat
Air System-Demonstration program.
can we integrate that in a way that’s not going to create
a lot of special procedures?” Steinberg said. “We’d like
to be as close to manned operations as possible.”
As an example, instead of a controller trying to steer
the unmanned aircraft with an electronic joy stick, the
drone could follow the same hand signals used to direct
a piloted plane, he suggested. But that would require the
unmanned aircraft to have a camera and software that
could recognize the various hand signals and respond.
“Obviously we have a long way to go,” he conceded.
The DCAP experiment is in the third year of a five-year effort, and ideally could be tested on a carrier,
The project lead at MIT is Missy Cummings, a former Navy F/A- 18 fighter pilot.
“She has a lot more understanding of this than most
academics would,” Steinberg said.
Part of the technological advance in flight deck control
that ONR is seeking with DCAP already is being tested by
NAVAIR. A computerized reporting and display system to
replace the Ouija Board is installed for evaluation aboard
the nuclear-powered carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The system will allow the handler to track flight deck
operations with displays and a monitor that receive data
on aircraft and equipment transmitted directly from the
flight deck and the hangar deck below, NAVAIR said.
If the system proves itself aboard Eisenhower, it could
be installed on all the carriers by 2015, the command said.
The high-tech Ouija Board system is part of a collection of electronic upgrades, called the Aviation Data
Management and Control System, that is intended “to
significantly improve ship air operations effectiveness
and workload reduction through process automation,
optimization and integration of key operational systems,” a NAVAIR data sheet said.
Although the means to control the movement of
unmanned aircraft on the flight deck has yet to be developed, the Navy successfully tested a computer program
that can guide a pilotless plane around the carrier traffic
pattern and to a landing July 2 on Eisenhower.
In a July 7 conference call with reporters, Rear Adm.
William E. Shannon III, program executive officer for
Unmanned and Strike Systems, said an F/A-18D made
a total of 36 “hands-free” approaches and 22 touchdowns on Eisenhower testing the computer software
developed for the X-47B.
Although a test pilot and backseat naval flight officer from Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., flew in
the two-seat F/A- 18 for safety, the computer systems
on Eisenhower and in the Hornet had complete control
of the aircraft as it flew around the carrier and made
the approaches, said Shannon and Capt. Jaime
Engdahl, the UCAS program manager.
All the communications from the ship to the aircraft,
which normally are done by voice over the radio, were
conducted by electronic data link transmissions, they
said. The approaches for landing were split between the
close-in circular pattern used in visual flight conditions
and the extended straight-in arrival required under bad
weather instrument flight rules, they said.
Fourteen of the approaches were low passes over the
flight deck, 16 were “touch-and-goes,” in which the
Hornet landed on the flight deck but did not deploy its
arresting hook and immediately took off, and six were
On every one of the landings, the Hornet touched
down in the number two or three wires, which is considered the sweet spot of the four arresting cables, with
the pilot’s hands off the controls, Engdahl said.
Those tests of the control system using the manned
surrogate aircraft were part of the preparation for the
expected carrier landing tests by the X- 47 in 2013,
Shannon said. Before then, the unmanned aircraft will fly
patterns around a carrier next year. The X- 47 also will be
put aboard a carrier for experiments on how to control it
on the flight deck, the two officers said.
Hands-off landings on a carrier are not new. Technology allowing carrier-controlled approaches to a landing was first tested on Aug. 12, 1957, and updated versions are installed in the F/A- 18 and other recent carrier-based aircraft. But those systems, which are intended for
use in extremely poor visibility conditions, require the
pilot to fly into position aft of the carrier where the electronic system can take over.
Given the nature of jet pilots, the hands-off system
is almost never used. ■