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US Navy launched its first drone from aircraft carrier

Published time: May 14, 2013 19:03
Edited time: June 04, 2013 05:55
This May 14, 2013 US Navy handout image shows an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launching from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (US Navy courtesy of Northrop Grumman /Alan Radecki)

This May 14, 2013 US Navy handout image shows an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launching from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (US Navy courtesy of Northrop Grumman /Alan Radecki)

The US Navy has successfully catapulted a prototype drone from an aircraft carrier on Tuesday, which is the first step in a program designed to begin fielding drones on all Navy carriers between 2017 and 2020.

The flight serves as a milestone for the future of drone aviation, and US Navy officers have celebrated the success of its launch. But the flight of the unmanned aircraft, which is the size of a fighter jet, is likely to become the subject of criticism from those who believe drone usage hurts the US image – especially since drones are behind many civilian deaths on foreign grounds.

This May 14, 2013 US Navy handout image shows an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flying over the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean. This May 14, 2013 US Navy handout image shows an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launching from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (US Navy courtesy of Northrop Grumman /Alan Radecki)

Critics have already condemned the Navy’s $1.4 billion drone prototype program, relaying their concerns over the development of weaponized systems in which humans will have even less control over when it comes to launching attacks.

Human Rights Watch has particularly protested the development of drones that carry weapons and are fully autonomous, like the X-47B unmanned aircraft that the Navy launched from the USS George H.W. Bush on Tuesday. This unmanned aircraft can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles, the Associated Press reports.

This May 10, 2013 US Navy handout image shows Dave Lorenz, a Northrop Grumman deck operator, driving an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator using an arm-mounted controller on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) while docked in Norfolk, Virginia. (AFP/Handout/US Navy/MC2 Timothy Walte)


This model is particularly valuable because it has the capability to take off and land on an aircraft carrier. Developing such drones would allow the US to launch strikes from anywhere in the world, regardless of whether or not a foreign country allows the US on its grounds.

The drone is fully autonomous in flight, and relies on computer programs to direct it – unless an operator programs it to operate otherwise. Most drones currently employed by the military fully rely on operators to control it from a remote location.

While the X-47B is only intended for testing purposes rather than operational use, the Navy will use it for research purposes to develop advanced unmanned aircraft for use in future conflicts. When it comes to using lethal force, the X-47B still requires human approval. But Human Rights Watch believes the prototype research will lead to the development of drones that conduct deadly attacks with no human intervention.

This US Navy photo shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (AFP/US NAVY/Nicholas Hal)

Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, expressed some of his fears with AP.

“For us, the question is where do you draw lines?” he said. “We’re saying you need to draw the line when you have a fully autonomous system that is weaponized. We’re saying you must have meaningful human control over key battlefield decisions of who lives and who dies. That should not be left up to the weapons system itself.”

But despite fears over the future of fully autonomous drones that can launch deadly attacks from aircraft carriers, the Navy is hailing the flight of its prototype as a success it has long sought.

“US Navy history is made!” the Navy wrote from its official Twitter account. “Was airborne at 11:18A. More to come.”

The Navy plans to release videos and photographs of the event, which Read Adm. Mat Winter wrote marks “an inflection point in history on how we will integrate manned and unmanned aircraft on carrier flight decks in the future.”

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