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First-Ever Carrier-Launch of a Jet-Powered Drone: Today

By Rich Smith – May 14, 2013 at 10:11AM

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Northrop's X-47B is ready to fly. It's just not ready to land on a carrier yet.

For Northrop Grumman (NOC -0.03%), today is the day of days.

The U.S. Navy plans to conduct the first-ever test launch of Northrop's new X-47B carrier-launched drone from an aircraft carrier (natch).

X-47B onboard the carrier. Source: U.S. Navy.

Specifically, the Navy says the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator will be lofted into the air from a catapult onboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). A joint team of Northrop technicians and Navy pilots will then fly the drone around a bit and attempt several carrier approaches -- testing how the airplane performs in preparation for a future attempt at an at-sea carrier-landing.

That actual landing won't happen today. They're not feeling that brave just yet. Instead, at the conclusion of the test runs, the X-47B will veer off and head back to shore to land on the blissfully not-heaving up-and-down runway at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

Ultimately -- and this day could still be years off -- Northrop aims to turn the X-47B into a fully carrier-capable, armed robotic fighter jet. It will become a merged version of, and a vast improvement over, today's more primitive jet-powered surveillance aircraft, and prop-driven, Hellfire-armed drones, capable of taking off from a carrier at sea, engaging airborne targets with onboard weapons, and returning to land again, on the carrier, at sea.


Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Northrop Grumman. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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