When the Navy’s X-47B drone screamed skyward off the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in May, those of us standing on the flight deck knew we were witnessing history: a robot flying itself--no pilot in the cockpit or on the ground, guiding the aircraft with a joystick. It was the first time an autonomous war plane had completed a catapult launch from a carrier deck.
And it was just the latest milestone for the X-47B. Here are some of the others: It's the first tailless, “batwing”-style airframe (it's technically known as a "cranked kite" design) to takeoff and land on a carrier. It’s the first jet-powered drone to operate from a carrier as well as the first unmanned combat fighter jet analog to come this far in its development. When it lands on a carrier deck sometime later this summer, it will be the first unmanned aircraft to do that, too.