Moves One Step Closer To Unmanned Autonomous Carrier
A team from the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System program office
(PMA-268) accomplished the first carrier touchdown of an F/A-18D
surrogate aircraft, emulating an unmanned vehicle, using systems
developed as part of the Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier
Demonstration (UCAS-D) program on July 2.
The test, conducted on USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), means
the Navy is one step closer to demonstrating the first
carrier-based recoveries and launches of an autonomous,
low-observable relevant unmanned aircraft. "What we saw here today
is cutting edge technology for integrating digital control of
autonomous carrier aircraft operations, and most importantly, the
capability to automatically land an unmanned air system aboard an
aircraft carrier," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, N-UCAS Program
Manager. "Successfully landing and launching a surrogate aircraft
allows us to look forward to demonstrating that a tailless,
strike-fighter-sized unmanned system can operate safely in the
Demonstrating the UCAS-D system with a carrier-based aircraft,
the F/A-18D, significantly reduces risk of landing an unmanned
system aboard the ship for the first time. The F/A-18 surrogate
aircraft, provided by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, is
controlled with actual avionics and software that are being
incorporated on X-47B UCAS-D aircraft. "Surrogate testing allows us
to evaluate ship systems, avionics systems, and early versions of
the unmanned vehicle software with a pilot in the loop for safety,"
said Glenn Colby, team lead for UCAS-D Aviation/Ship Integration.
"With this we can verify our interfaces and functionality while
minimizing the risk to an unmanned vehicle."
Along with the F/A-18, the test team employed a King Air
surrogate aircraft operated by Air-Tec, Inc. According to Colby,
the King Air gives the team a low-cost test bed to evaluate the
ability of the UCAS-D avionics and ship systems to properly adhere
to existing carrier operations procedures. PMA-268 is using the
King Air to test all of the system functionality that does not
require actually landing on the ship. "The most important thing we
have done is adapted the ship's systems to handle a vehicle without
a pilot, then seamlessly integrated it into carrier operations,"
said Rob Fox, UCAS-D Aviation/Ship Integration deputy team lead.
"We're using both current aircraft carrier hardware and software
systems and processes, and introducing new systems and processes to
accommodate an unmanned system."
The vast majority of today's carrier flight operations are flown
manually and visually by Naval Aviators. The pilot gives the ship
information about the aircraft over the radio; all air traffic
control instructions are by voice and even a good portion of
navigation data has to be read over the air by the ship. The
purpose of the UCAS-D integration effort is to digitize the
communications and navigation information flow to incorporate
capabilities required for UAS flight operations aboard a carrier,
with minimal impact to existing hardware, training and procedures.
"This test period shows us very clearly that the carrier segment
hardware and software, and the Precision Global Positioning System
(PGPS) landing technologies are mature and ready to support actual
unmanned operations with the X-47B," said Engdahl.
To support an autonomous vehicle, PMA-268 has modified
shipboard equipment so that the UCAS-D X-47B air vehicle, mission
operator and ship operators are on the same digital network. For
current fleet aircraft, the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), who is
charged with safe recovery of aircraft aboard the ship, uses voice
commands and visual signals to communicate with a pilot on final
approach. Since a UAS cannot reliably respond to voice and visual
signals, the LSO's equipment communicates directly with the
aircraft through the digital network via a highly reliable
interface. Similar digital communication capability has been
integrated with the ship's primary flight control ("tower") and
Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) facilities. Most
importantly, the UAS operator's equipment, installed in one of the
carrier's ready rooms, is integrated with the very same
In addition to communications, an unmanned system requires
highly precise and reliable navigation to operate around the ship.
This first arrested landing of the F/A-18D surrogate aircraft
aboard the Eisenhower was enabled by integrating Precision Global
Positioning System (PGPS) capabilities into the ship and the
aircraft. According to Engdahl, these tests demonstrate that PGPS
landing technologies and the carrier segment hardware and software
are mature and ready to support actual unmanned operations with the
X-47B. In addition, these capabilities have the potential to make
manned aircraft operations safer and more efficient. "Our team has
worked vigorously over the past five years to modify and develop
systems required to operate unmanned aircraft around and aboard a
carrier," said Adam Anderson, team lead for UCAS-D Aviation/Ship
Integration System Build, who has worked on the program since 2006.
"This was a very complex and challenging task that required
innovative, hard-working and dedicated individuals to get the job
The first experiments supporting unmanned carrier operations
were conducted in 2002 followed by at-sea testing of a King Air in
2005. With the basic concept proven, the UCAS-D team began the
detailed design of the carrier integration in 2007. The
PMA-268/NAVAIR team worked closely with experts from PEO (Carriers)
and the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to determine the details
of system installation on a carrier, while working to minimize
impact to ongoing missions and capabilities aboard the ship.
Initial capability of the ship equipment was verified in January
2010 during testing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
In fall 2010, ship modifications began on the Eisenhower. The
UCAS-D team worked closely with ship's company personnel to lessen
disruption to other activities required for normal operations and
maintenance of the ship. Initial surrogate testing took place
during the ship's sea trials the week of June 13, which validated
the system's readiness for carrier landings. "This was truly a team
effort with our industry partners, including Northrop Grumman,
Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, L-3 Communications, SAIC, ARINC and
Sierra Nevada Corporation, PEO Carriers, NAVSEA and, of course, the
crew of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower," Engdahl added. "The
exceptional support and collaboration of the entire team has set us
up very well to achieve our ultimate milestone –autonomous
landing of an actual unmanned, low-observable relevant aircraft on
the aircraft carrier in 2013."
The UCAS-D program continues ship integration and X-47B flight
test activities in preparation for sea trials in 2013. Flight
testing is underway at Edwards Air Force Base and will transition
to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland later this year.