Northrop’s X-47B robotic jet makes first flight from Edwards Air Force Base


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A bat-winged robotic jet resembling a miniature B-2 stealth bomber flew for the first time at Edwards Air Force Base in a test flight that could mark a new age in naval aviation.

Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp.’s experimental drone, dubbed X-47B, climbed to 5,000 feet in a 29-minute flight on Friday, the U.S. Navy said in a statement.


The X-47B is being developed to take off from an aircraft carrier, drop a bomb on an enemy target and then land back on a carrier, all without a pilot.

‘Today we got a glimpse towards the future as the Navy’s first-ever tailless, jet-powered unmanned aircraft took to the skies,’ said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, X-47B program manager, in a statement.

The drone was built behind a barbed-wire fences and double security doors at Northrop’s expansive facility in Palmdale under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007. The drone marks a major shift from existing robotic aircraft.

Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. The X-47B could carry out a combat mission controlled entirely by a computer. A human pilot designs a flight path and sends it on its way and a computer program guides it from a ship to target and back.

In 100 years of naval aviation, only experienced pilots have performed the difficult task of landing a fighter on an aircraft carrier in the ocean.

The X-47B is designed to fly farther and stay in the air longer than existing aircraft because it does not depend on a human pilot’s endurance. Navy fighter pilots may fly missions that last up to 10 hours. Current drones can fly for three times that long.

The Navy and Northrop plan on continuing test flights throughout the year at Edwards.The X-47B is designed to fly at 40,000 feet at speeds of more than 500 miles per hour.

It will first undergo about 50 flights at Edwards,the Navy said. The first aircraft will complete its initial testing in late 2011. A second aircraft will begin testing shortly thereafter.

‘We are breaking new ground by developing the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard a flight deck,’ said Navy Rear Adm. Bill Shannon, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. ‘This demonstration program is intended to reduce risk for potential future unmanned systems operating in and around aircraft carriers.’


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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photos, from top: The X-47B takes flight at Edwards Air Force Base on Friday; the X-47B airborne above the California desert. Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.