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US Navy to Switch to Unmanned Planes and the X-47B Drone Refuels Autonomously

First Posted: Apr 17, 2015 04:05 PM EDT
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X-47B Unmanned Aircraft Refueling Autonomously

Photo : U.S. Navy Photograph by Liz Wolter

The U.S. Navy may be switching to unmanned planes in the near future, according to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. As unmanned vehicles become the norm and their development continues, the Navy has begun considering using them to replace manned combat planes. The success of the X-47B drone to refuel autonomously exemplifies the progress already achieved.

Speaking on Wednesday, April 15, at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 conference, Secretary of the Navy Mabus explained in a speech the Navy needs to continue innovating and thinking outside the box to counter ever changing threats and technological advances. One area he would like to see expanded involves unmanned vehicles.

"I will appoint a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems, who will help bring together all the many stakeholders and operators who are currently working on this technology in order to streamline their efforts," he said, adding he would create a new office for the Navy Staff, to oversee all aspects of unmanned technologies, whether on sea, air, underwater or land.

Secretary Mabus's speech emphasized the need to innovate and improve new technologies. He hinted at future changes at least concerning the Navy's aircraft.

"As good as it is, and as much as we need it and look forward to having it in the fleet for many years, the F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly," he explained.

Unmanned aircraft have made many advances in recent years. Northrop Grumman's X-47B demonstrator, classified as an Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), has made history throughout its short career. It became the first drone to take off and land on an aircraft carrier.

The Aviationist reports on April 16 the X-47B named "Salty Dog 502" completed the first autonomous aerial refueling. The X-47B successfully connected with the fueling probe from an Omega Air Boeing KC-707 tanker.

However, the X-47B's mission has come to an end. According to USNI News, Naval Air System Commands says Salty Dog 502 and its sibling, Salty Dog 501, will be removed from testing and will either be placed in a museum or the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, the airplane "boneyard."

The Navy's decision is a financial one, as the X-47B still has only used 20 percent of its approved flight time.

Despite of its early retirement, the X-47B, as well as the other drones in service and in development, reinforce Secretary Mabus's idea of a future military with more frontline unmanned aircraft.

"Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas," he said.

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