When you look at it from the front, the new Navy X-47B sort of stares back like a 14-ton cyclops from an alien world. The thing is so uncanny that when it was shipped it across the country to its testing grounds in Maryland on the back of a truck wrapped in plastic, onlookers flooded the 911 switchboard and local papers with calls, saying they’d spotted a UFO. “People were calling in saying, ‘Oh they think they found a flying saucer. It looks like a flying saucer to us and we don’t know for sure what it is,’” said Donetta Godsey with the Winfield Daily Courier, a small town paper in Kansas. It’s just a new drone, and yes, it will drop bombs one day.
Developed as part of DARPA’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program and built by Northrop Grumman, the X-47B is the Navy’s pet project that first took flight this February. Between now and the time it goes into service in 2019, they hope it will become the first drone to land on an aircraft carrier. Eventually, they hope that the aircraft will get smart enough to be fully autonomous, so that its operators can pre-program a mission and send the X-47B out with the click of a mouse. Until then, it can operated with a special white box called the Control Display Unit that Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman describes as a “Power Glove for flight-deck operations.” With six buttons on the handle and strap-on battery pack, the device lets the drone’s operator steer the aircraft with a flick of the wrist.
It’s still weird seeing something this big without a cockpit.
On Tuesday, reporters got to check out the X-47B up close for the first time at a specialized base in Maryland called “Pax River.” There, the Navy’s recreated the conditions of an aircraft carrier complete with catapults for launch and arrestor cables to stop planes when they land as well as a control tower with all the same hardware and software as a carrier. Given that it takes three years to train a human pilot to learn how to fly off carriers, it’ll be a hell of a challenge to get a robot to do it. So far, however, the closest they’ve come is outfitting an F-18 with X-47B software and landing with the safety of a human pilot on board ready to take over the controls at any time. The Navy will finally put the X-47B onto an aircraft carrier next year.
Until then, we can just marvel at the thing. 38-feet in length with a 62-foot wingspan, the X-47B is practically the size of a fighter jet and can nearly fly at the speed of sound. The Navy hasn’t outfitted the drone with sensors and weapons yet, but it does sport two payload bays capable of holding up to 4,500 pounds of bombs. And that UFO look? They’re well aware. “When we first saw it with its wheels up, it had kind of that dreamy spaceship look anyway, so it’s kinda cool,” said Brooks McKinney, a spokesman for X-47B manufacturer Northrop Grumman, told Wired. “If we were really smart we would have rigged it up with purple lights that blink and pulsate.”