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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.

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