Northrop Grumman recently announced its stealth UAV has been successfully completed and will be ready for initial test flights in the fall of 2009. Designed under a joint program with the United States Navy, the X-47B drone will closely resemble a strike fighter. It will take off from and land on an aircraft carrier and support mid-air refueling. Unlike the current crop of military UAVs, the X-47B will operate mostly autonomously once airborne.
Northrop Grumman was awarded a Navy contract in 2007 to develop two unmanned combat air system (UCAS) vehicles over the course of six years. Called the X-47B, the first drone was built in just over a year. The initial requirement for this new aircraft design was just integration with the aircraft carrier system, but mid-air refueling was later added to the mix.
The X-47B is designed to fly at altitudes of up to 40,000 feet at high subsonic speeds. It is also designed for long range, high endurance missions, performing several tasks including intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, close air support, communications relay, ballistic missile detection, and precision strikes.
The X-47B drones are being built in California and incorporate parts and services from several partners including Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, GE Aviation, Honeywell, Goodrich, Dell, GKE Aerospace, Eaton Aerospace, Moog Inc., Wind River, Parker Aerospace, Hamilton Sunstrand, and Rockwell Collins.
Only one X-47B has been constructed at this time. A second drone should be completed in 2009. No further vehicles are planned until after the design passes its tests. Subsystem and structural tests are currently underway. The initial aerial tests scheduled for fall 2009 will only ensure the vehicle can fly; more robust testing including flights from an aircraft carrier are set to start in 2011 with an eye toward deployment only around 2020.
In 2006 TFOT reported on test flight preparation of the X-48B UAV, currently still under development by Boeing and NASA. TFOT has reported on other military UAV designs and tests including the Flying Beer Keg UAV recently deployed in Iraq, the deployment of Boeing Hummingbird UAVs by Special Operations forces, modification of existing UAVs for Coast Guard use, and the Aurora Flight Sciences’ Excalibur armed UAV.
More information on the X-47B and future test plans can be found in the Northrop Grumman X-47B page, the Northrop Grumman X-47B fact sheet found here (PDF), the Northrop Grumman X-47B product brochure found here (PDF), and the press release announcing the completion of the first vehicle found here.