Score one more for our robot overlords: the US Navy's next-generation autonomous drone, the X-47B, successfully landed on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush today during a milestone test run off the coast of Virginia. Following another historic test which took place in May, the feat makes the drone the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to both take off and land on an aircraft carrier, opening up frightening new horizons for the world's most powerful military.
Developed by aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman, the X-47B is the first UAV designed to refuel, take off, and land without any human intervention. The new breed of autonomous drones has raised new concerns about ethics and accountability in the United States' expanding arsenal of unmanned aerial systems, which has been heavily utilized for surveillance and "targeted" killing operations in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Costs for the X-47B project have grown to approximately $1.4 billion since the contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2007.
The drone's current model hasn't been weaponized yet, but a larger variant has a weapons bay able to hold a 10,000-pound payload. Current US military and CIA drones like the MQ-9 Reaper are launched from secret bases located in countries like Qatar, Djibouti, and Saudi Arabia, where they are sent to conduct covert strikes in undeclared war zones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. But with the ability to launch unassisted from offshore vessels, new models like the X-47B hold the potential to dramatically expand the US military's remote airstrike capability. The Navy says the recent take off and landing demonstrations display its "readiness to move forward with unmanned carrier aviation operations," and further tests are scheduled to demonstrate the drone's refueling abilities next year.