Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

Quick aviation dork post. The X-47B, the world's first stealthy, carrier-borne, semi-autonomous drone will make its first catapult launch at sea today. The cat shot is a big deal, and also a first. To date, the only seaborne drones are small and don't operate from aircraft carriers like, say, an F-18.

The key difference between the types is, of course, the pilot. And that's why it's such an impressive milestone. The X-47's processor and software fly it off the catapult and, more important, land it on the carrier... a feat that is arguably the hardest in aviation.

See what I mean?

An airliner's autoland system is proven technology, but there are a lot fewer variables. For example, the runway is bigger... and it's not moving in three dimensions. To date, landing on a carrier deck is something only a highly trained pilot could pull off; instinct plays almost as big a role as processing all the information from instruments and eyes and translating it into control inputs.

And yet. Look at this:

And this:

Granted, these are occurring on dry, unmoving land. But what you see there is a plane launching from a catapult and landing using an arresting wire in a space the size of a carrier deck without a pilot at the controls... onboard or on the ground.

if Northrup-Grumman and the Navy pull this off at sea on Tuesday, it represents a huge leap forward. Or, depending on how you look at it, another step on the way to Skynet.

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