Naval UAVs Take Flight

Not to be lost in the conversation about unmanned aerial vehicles over land are significant developments of UAV capabilities over waters.  Specifically, just a month ago now, the 41,000-pound X-47B became the first unmanned aircraft system to catapult off the deck of an aircraft carrier and conduct touch-and-go’s off the USS George Bush.  A week later, the U.S. Navy’s Triton made its first flight, a major step in delivering a maritime surveillance capability to the armed forces.

The evolution of these machines dates back to at least 1997 when the Office of Naval Research investigated the concept of a Highly Maneuverable Lethal Vehicle.  The year 2007 also is an important date.  That is when the Navy awarded Northrup Grumman a $636 million contract for a “uninhabited” combat air vehicle (“UCAV”) demonstration, to integrate unmanned aircraft onto an aircraft carrier’s flight deck.  The X-47B made its first flight a few years later, in February 2011.

It will be interesting to see how this new breed of UAVs — Uclass (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike — develops.

Meanwhile, also over seas, the Italian government is backing the development of the Piaggio-Selex HammerHead, a medium altitude, long endurance (“MALE”) drone.  It is expected to fly in August or September and is an important development as Europe’s own UAV capabilities lag behind those of the US and Israel.