Top Gun in the 21st century: U.S. pilots left standing on deck as they launch new ‘stealth’ drone from an aircraft carrier for the first time… using handheld consoles
- The Northrop Grumman X-47B is the first drone designed to take off and land from an aircraft carrier
- That means it can be deployed across the world without the need for foreign airfields to operate
- It is also the first drone able to fly itself using AI, sparking fears its human controllers could lose control of it
The U.S. Navy launched an unmanned, autonomous aircraft the size of a fighter jet from a warship for the first time today, a development that could herald the end of Top Gun-style piloted air combat missions.
The X-47B drone is the first designed to operate an aircraft carrier, which allows it to be used around the world without needing permission to take off from airfields in other countries.
But there are concerns about the legality of what has been dubbed America’s ‘covert drone war’. Strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and operate with only limited oversight, critics say.
Lift off: The drone takes off from the end of the George H.W. Bush’s flight deck. The X-47B is able to operate totally using artificial intelligence in its on-board computers which merely need to be set objectives by the drone’s human operators. Critics have warned the technology is a step towards the development of ‘killer robots’
Aside from its ability to operate from aircraft carriers, another big difference between the X-47B and previous drones is that it does not need to be piloted by remote control.
Instead, it is controlled by a forearm-mounted box called the Control Display Unit which sends orders to an on-board computer which is able to use artificial intelligence to think for itself, plotting course corrections and charting new directions.
The unmanned drone will be set an objective by a human operator, for example a target to look at or bomb, and then it will navigate its way there using technology such as GPS, autopilot and collision avoidance sensors.
Critics have warned the introduction of such AI into military weapons systems is a step towards the development of autonomous ‘killer robots’. Navy officials say the drone will give them around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting capabilities.
Prototype: The test aircraft isn’t intended for operational use; instead, the military is using the information it gathers to develop the drone program
The prototype X-47B took off successfully this morning from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia and made two low approaches to the ship before heading back toward land.
The test aircraft, which has been designed and built by the weapons maker Northrop Grumman, isn’t intended for operational use; instead, the military is using the information it gathers during these demonstrations to develop the drone program.
The Navy already operates two other unmanned aircraft: the small, low cost ScanEagle, which does not carry weapons; and the Fire Scout, which is armed but built more like a helicopter.