On July 10, 2013, after two earlier successful trapped landings on the USS George HW Bush (CVN-77), the Navy’s X-47B “Salty Dog 502” drone self-aborted on a third attempt and flew to an airfield on Wallops Island on the Virginia Eastern Shore. The plan was to have the other of the two Northrop Grumman experimental drones, Salty Dog 501, make a trapped landing on Monday, July 17th, so that the objective of three trapped landings could be reached. Unfortunately, Salty Dog 501’s trapped landing attempt was also aborted because of unspecified technical issue.
Some news media are questioning the sucesss of the $1.4 billion drone project because 50% (2 of 4) of the trapped landings failed. The Navy and Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the X-47B, are taking a more positive view, saying that the tests were successful, and they have enough data to analyze the results and move forward with the drone development program.
Remember the date, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. It’s the day that the US Navy’s drone, the X-47B dubbed “Salty Dog 502,” made an arrested or trapped landing on an aircraft carrier, the USS George HW Bush (CVN-77). In trapped landings, the drone, like a manned aircraft, lands and is stopped when the tail hook latches onto the arresting cable on the carrier. It is the most difficult maneuver a pilot will make, and likewise, the most difficult maneuver for a drone.
Following deck-handling trials on the USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) in December 2012, the X-47B drone was successfully launched from the USS George HW Bush (CVN-77) in May 2013. A couple of weeks later on the BUSH, the X-47B made a number of touch-and-go landings, where the drone landed and took off without stopping. The trapped landing, the final hurdle for the experimental drone, is a milestone in naval aviation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Lorelei R. Vander Griend/Released)
It’s worth noting that after two successful takeoffs and trapped landings, a third trapped landing was aborted when one of the drone’s three onboard navigation systems developed a glitch. The drone was diverted to an airfield on Wallops Island, Virginia, where it landed without incident. Once the issue is resolved, the drone will return to Naval Air Station, Patuxent, Maryland.
(U.S. Navy graphic by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arif Patani/Released)
The other of the two X-47B drones will be launched for unspecified tests the week of July 15th. David M. Ewalt of Forbes reported that after these tests, the two drones will be retired, and engineers will analyze their systems and data to determine if the X-47B is ready for final production and deployment.
According to Rear Admiral Matt Winter, Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, the drones that the Navy will ultimately deploy will be in operation by 2020. By then, the first of the Navy’s next generation carriers, the USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78), scheduled for delivery in 2016, will be in service, as may be the USS John F Kennedy (CVN-79), scheduled for delivery in 2020. The contract will be awarded to one of four companies next year. It’s been widely reported that the four are Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, Lockeed Martin’s Sea Ghost, Boeing’s Phantom Ray, and General Atomics Sea Avenger.
In December, Iran claimed to have captured a U.S. ScanEagle surveillance drone that was violating Iranian airspace. The ScanEagle, designed to be flown from a ship, is a small drone, 4.5 feet long with a wingspan of 10.2 feet with an empty weight of under 30 pounds.
The most notable use of the drone was in in 2011 in the MV Maersk Alabama piracy incident in the Indian Ocean. The New York Times report that US Officials have downplayed the drone’s technology, stating it has less computing power than a smartphone and camera technology that could be purchased at Radio Shack. If that’s true, one might ask why the ScanEagle system costs$3.2 million.
Photograph of Sentinel Drone that Iran has claimed to have captured
The ScanEagle is one of several drones that Iran has claimed to have captured, the most notable was the RQ-170 Sentinel Drone in December 2011. The New York Times reported that the Sentinel Drone was lost over Afghanistan, however, officials stated they would have expected to see much more damage if the drone had been brought down. Unless, of course, Iran seized control of the drone and landed it without damage. The other possibility raised in the report is that the drone glided to the ground after control was interrupted.
XC59VFC3BPCG My new novel, Return to Valor, will be published later this year. The military techno-thriller features an experimental Navy drone. In anticipation of the release of this novel, I am writing a series of blog posts related to drones. This is the first of the series.
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Last month, Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first city in the nation to pass legislation imposing a two-year ban on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. Now, the Virginian-PIlot has reported that the state legislature has passed a bill that poses a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by police or government agencies in Virginia. The bill is awaiting approval by Governor Bob McDonnell. Like their colleagues in Charlottesville, the state legislators are concerned that the use of drones could infringe on citizens’ right to privacy. I have been unable to find the precise wording of the legislation, but should Gov. McDonnell sign it, I wonder what the implications are for private use of drones or use by the military in Hampton Roads or use by the CIA at Langley and the trainees at Camp Peary, a short drone flight from Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary. After all, the CIA isn’t the military, it is a government agency. And what distinction can be made between the local police using a drone to search for suspects and missing persons and the police using a helicopter to do the same thing? Does the fact one is piloted and the other is not make any difference to the possible infringement on our right to privacy? How about television traffic helicopters?
Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia and, like most small university towns, is a liberal environment in which to live and work. The Virginia metropolitan area of Hampton Roads, where I live, is home to: the world’s largest naval base, the east coast-based Navy SEALs, the Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Naval Air Station Oceana – the Navy’s East Coast Master Jet Base, Joint-Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, the CIA’s Camp Peary, the Fifth Coast Guard District, and SEAL Team Six. By anyone’s measure, it is a conservative, testosterone-charged place to live and work. In Hampton Roads, the thought of banning police use of small, unarmed surveillance drones seems—well, odd. If it is a right to privacy issue, aren’t there right to privacy laws on the books that cover violations by the police or anyone else? Do we need really need a special one for drones?
In their rush to pass something, I hope that the legislators took time to define what is meant by drone. When one reads a news headline about drones, images of the large Predator or Reaper drone, equipped with a powerful, high-definition cameras, and armed with Hellfire missiles comes to mind. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t want those flying over our house any more than would the law-abiding citizens of Pakistan or wherever else the the military and CIA are using them.
But the Parrott AR Drone, available in most shopping malls at Bookstone, with its built-in HD camera is a drone both in name and function. Therefore, for now, I must defer any further thoughts of buying one—seriously, I want one—because being a resident of Virginia, I just might be breaking the law even though the moratorium does not appear to cover use of drones by private citizens. By the way, my wife is pleased with this news. She didn’t see any reason to spend $300 on a drone that has a 12-minute battery life.