In an event sure to make "history"—if not for its technical prowess, then for its long-term impact on international warfare—the US Navy Wednesday successfully completed the landing of a fully automated aerial drone on an aircraft carrier at sea.
In what is being billed as a "pivotal moment" for the US military in the "growing global robotics arms race," the landing—which took place on the deck of the USS George HW Bush off the mid-Atlantic coast—is the first time a "robot performed a feat executable only by the navy's top pilots," reports the Guardian.
The X-47B, constructed by Northrop Grumman, is a different kind of drone from the Predators and Reapers that have become global symbols of American military power. Contrary to popular understanding, those drones are not actually pilotless. People, usually US air force officers and contractors, fly them remotely, controlling them through instruments resembling those found in a traditional cockpit.
The X-47B is pilotless. Its operations occur thanks to lines of software code that its on-board computer systems execute. Its flight paths are pre-programmed [...] although navy officials can take control in the event of a malfunction.
"Precursor to fully autonomous weapons?" tweeted Mary Wareham, Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.
— Mary Wareham (@marywareham) July 10, 2013
The human rights watchdog group has long been sounding the alarm over the potential of 'killer robots,' including the X-47B—a craft which they say "would take autonomous armed combat anywhere in the planet."
And the Associated Press confirms that the successful landing paves the way for the US to "launch unmanned aircraft without the need to obtain permission from other countries to use their bases."
"Your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and mine will be reading about this historic event in their history books," boasted Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the head of the navy's drone programs.
Though the navy plans on "mothballing" the costly X-47B ($1.4bn over four years), there are plans to develop other models of armed drones which will work alongside manned naval aircraft providing "around-the-clock surveillance while also possessing a strike capability."
The Guardian continues:
[T]he navy will now put its energy into the X-47B's successor, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike robot, or UClass. The navy wants to use UClass to augment its carrier air wings – it will not replace manned pilots – providing surveillance flights longer than human pilots can withstand and, if necessary, firing its weapons in battle scenarios too dangerous for human pilots. Unlike the X-47B, the UClass robots will be armed, although navy officers insist that weapons releases will only occur at a human's direction.
Four companies are competing for the UClass contract, each with their own design for the forthcoming drone.