After history-making autonomous landings and takeoffs on an aircraft carrier this summer, the Navy’s two X-47B jet-powered drones quietly flew into retirement in July. Publicly, the Navy and drone-maker Northrop Grumman initially said the bat-wing ‘bots were done flying. Future efforts would be focused on a new, better class of carrier-launched drone.

But information obtained by War is Boring reveals details of the Navy’s new plan: to revive the X-47Bs in a few months and fly them for up to two more years on a fresh series of increasingly challenging tests. The apparent goal is to gather even more data in order to smooth the sailing branch’s transition to a more robotic air arm.

That’s right—arguably the most important drones in the world are not yet done making history. Their unique bat-like silhouettes should soon reappear over the fleet.

X-47B ground testing. Northrop Grumman photo

Robot ambitions

The Navy previously hinted at the revival, without going into specifics. “I believe you will see continued operation of the X-47B at least into the fiscal year 2014 time period,” Rear Adm. Mat Winter told a Washington, D.C. television station on Sunday, as reported by the U.S. Naval Institute. “As we go forward we are continuing to assess its operational opportunities.”

War is Boring has learned that the two 62-foot-wingspan drones—built at Northrop’s secretive facility in Palmdale, California and first flown from land in 2011 — will separately deploy onto carriers a combined three more times: at the end of this year, again in the fall of next year and for the final planned time from the very end of 2014 until early 2015.

They will test out modifications to potentially three more carriers on the East and West Coasts meant to make the flattops compatible with autonomous warplanes.

Candidate carriers apparently include the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Harry S. Truman from the Atlantic Fleet and the USS Carl Vinson with the Pacific Fleet. In late 2012 Truman had hosted an X-47B for non-flying deck-handling trials, but all of the drones’ at-sea launches and landings took place aboard the new carrier USS George H.W. Bush off the Maryland coast.

Eventually all of the Navy’s 10 flattops will carry drones.

The X-47Bs will also conduct the first-ever aerial refueling of a robotic aircraft in the fall of 2014 and, around the same time, fully integrate with a 70-plane carrier air wing for several weeks — the latter a sort of “final exam” for a new naval warplane.

An X-47B aboard the USS Harry S. Truman. Navy photo

Drone revival

It’s not hard to guess why the Navy is reviving its robot prototypes. Both X-47Bs were forced to abort their final planned carrier landings in July owing to internal technical problems that, to the ‘bots’ credit, they safely detected on their own.

It’s possible the Navy wants to finally complete those landings and ensure the X-47Bs’ bugs are worked out.

More broadly, the sailing branch is banking hugely on autonomous warplanes and seems eager to reduce technical risk through further experimentation before it selects a front-line model for combat use.

Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics are all competing to build the definitive carrier drone starting in 2018 or 2019 — a program that could cost billions of dollars on top of the roughly $1 billion the Navy has already spent on the X-47Bs.

And then there’s Congress. The Navy had originally planned on testing out aerial refueling with the X-47Bs but balked at the cost and cancelled that effort this spring. Congress wants the tests restored — and completed no later than October 2014.

An X-47B under construction. Northrop Grumman photo

Corporate windfall

The X-47Bs’ renewed lease on life could prove a major windfall for Northrop, one of the world’s leading drone-manufacturers. The X-47s’ continued testing could help Northrop revise its design for the follow-on, combat-capable ‘bot, which almost certainly will be based on the X-47B, anyway.

The last time a major airframer got to run a warplane test program immediately before a competition for a production jet was in the 1980s and ‘90s. Lockheed spent years trialling radar-evading, vertical-landing fighter designs alongside Pentagon scientists.

And when it came time to pick a design for the international Joint Strike Fighter in 2001, Lockheed had a clear lead on its rival Boeing. Lockheed snagged the contract for potentially thousands of planes costing hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Navy drone program is much smaller in comparison, but arguably more important to the future of U.S. air power. With its X-47Bs set to resume flying, Northrop could lead America into a new drone era.

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