The U.S. Navy is one step closer to production of its next-generation unmanned aerial vehicle (U.A.V., also called drones) that will launch from aircraft carriers and have the capability of refueling in the air.
During the first quarter of 2015, the Navy is set to pick a model from among the four defense contractors asked to design a prototype of the aircraft.
Drone development has seen a massive boost over the last several years. Eventually, as many as eight prototype units of what the Navy is calling its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drones will be embarked on aircraft carriers. They will be able to conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting and striking capabilities around the clock.
The advantage of utilizing carrier-launched drones is instantaneous intel and striking capabilities. As routine as manned aircraft take-offs and landings from aircraft carriers are, they are still extremely dangerous. Plus, using drones calls for significantly fewer man-hours of training than piloting a jet.
With aerial refueling capability, a drone would be able to stay airborne for five to ten times longer than any manned aircraft would.
But even with all of the advantages, the UCLASS drones will most likely not serve in active combat roles. Many Navy and DOD officials want drones limited strictly to an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) function, as opposed to using them for strikes and attacks.
In August, Northrop Grumman ran successful trials of its prototype candidate, the X-47B. The X-47B successfully took off and landed from the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). Tests included daytime and nighttime take-offs, landings, touch-and-goes, and operations conducted alongside manned aircraft, from the same flight deck. Once contractors develop a method to refuel this next generation of drones in the air, this useful tool will seemingly have no operational limitations. It will be up to military leadership as to how they will be used.
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Military Connection: Navy Nearer to Drone Approval: By Debbie Gregory