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News Link • Military

I Am Warplane

•, By Clay Dillow
 On a clear day early next year, an unmanned aircraft painted in the dark gull gray of a Navy fighter jet will take off from a runway at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, bank over the Chesapeake Bay and set a course toward an aircraft carrier, motoring several miles out over the Atlantic. As it approaches the carrier, the craft will open communication with air-traffic control, request landing clearance from the deck officers and establish a glide slope that accounts for wind velocity, ship speed and even the slight rolling of the ship’s deck. Pilots consider a carrier landing one of the hardest operations in all of flight. The X-47B will land without any pilot at all.

The X-47B is the world’s first autonomous warplane. From takeoff through landing, it flies with little or no direct control from human handlers. Although it is a prototype not intended for actual combat use—the Navy calls it a technology demonstrator—engineers designed it to slip into contested airspace, dodge antiaircraft defenses like cannons and surface-to-air missiles, and deliver strikes or perform reconnaissance. When it completes its mission early next year, the X-47B will be both the first tailless aircraft and the first unmanned one to ever land on a carrier. And it will mean that the Navy, armed with some future variant, will have the capability to order unmanned sorties from carrier groups anywhere in the world within hours of a clash.

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