A US Navy drone successfully landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier on Wednesday, in an historic first for robotic flight, officials said.
The X-47B experimental plane had taken off earlier from the Patuxent River naval air station in Maryland before heading to the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier off the Virginia coast, the Navy said in a statement.
“Just got a look into the future of Naval Aviation,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wrote in a tweet. “X47B successfully completed its first arrested landing.”
The X-47B is controlled remotely but has more autonomy than older drones such as the Reaper and Predator.
Naval pilots require years of training to learn how to land a fighter jet on a carrier deck at sea, and even experienced aviators say touching down on a ship at night is a difficult challenge.
But Wednesday’s unprecedented landing by an unmanned plane showed that sophisticated computer software could perform the same task, guiding a robotic aircraft onto the deck of a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The X-47B drone already successfully took off from a carrier in a catapult launch on May 14.
The US Navy envisages the bat-winged, tailless plane becoming an important element in all air wings aboard carriers, which currently rely on manned fighter jets and helicopters.
The X-47B, which is about 38 feet (12 meters) long with a wingspan of 62 feet, can reach subsonic speeds and fly at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.
Unlike the Predator, which is slower and has a more limited range of 675 nautical miles (1,250 kilometers), the X-47B can fly 2,100 nautical miles before refueling, allowing it to potentially carry out bombing raids at a long range.
The experimental prototype, which looks like a smaller version of the B-2 bomber, was developed by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman at a cost of about $1.4 billion.