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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

U.S. Navy Integrates Autonomous Drones With Manned Missions

image credit: Alex Millar/U.S. Navy
Nicholas West

"History" was made in mid-May of last year as Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned drone made its first launch at sea from the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. While the Navy says it wasn't intended for the immediate war environment, it was heralded by the commander of the Naval Air Forces, Vice Admiral David Buss, as a monumental achievement:

Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

This test was followed by the successful landing of the same aircraft upon a moving flight deck at sea to which it returned after being stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. That event, as you will see below, is thought to have heralded the arrival of the autonomous drones of the future.

The Navy is now announcing the successful integration of autonomous drones alongside manned aircraft for ongoing regular carrier missions. 


Full integration:
The aircraft completed a series of tests demonstrating its ability to operate safely and seamlessly with manned aircraft.
The first series of manned/unmanned operations began Sunday morning when the ship launched an F/A-18 and an X-47B. After an eight-minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area.
This cooperative launch and recovery sequence will be repeated multiple times over the course of the planned test periods. The X-47B performed multiple arrested landings, catapults, flight deck taxiing and deck refueling operations.
Today we showed that the X-47B could take off, land and fly in the carrier pattern with manned aircraft while maintaining normal flight deck operations. This is key for the future Carrier Air Wing. - Capt. Beau Duarte, Program Manager, Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation office
The Navy will continue X-47B flight operations over the next year to refine the concept of operations to demonstrate the integration of unmanned carrier-based aircraft within the carrier environment and mature technologies for the future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system.  (Source)

While the Pentagon has thus far insisted that automated systems will never supplant human decision making, and various military analysts don't see any type of autonomous machine warfare as likely before 2030, another video by defense contractor General Atomics puts a very specific date on the next generation of drone warfare - 2017.

This video speaks for itself in terms of the planned capabilities of the Predator C Avenger, but what should be highlighted is their stated goal to reduce the number of humans and increase the number of Unmanned Aerial Systems. Cost-reduction is mentioned as a key component of the flexibility that can be offered. This is the real future:

Also worth noting is the multiple weapons capability of this single aircraft, all wrapped up in a video game interface with its "plug and play" functionality. Does this convince you that warfare is likely to end anytime soon, or that drones are in the mere testing phase?

The drones of the future have likely been completed and are awaiting full rollout. This announcement is one more step in the conditioning of the public that the future of drone warfare is just around the corner, when it is already upon us.

But we should be happy to celebrate this history-making event.

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