What’s Really Hard

US defense and industry officials greeted the autonomous launch and landing of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator on the deck of an aircraft carrier earlier this year as significant aviation milestones. But they weren’t really the hard part, said Tom Vice, the company’s aerospace systems sector president, on Tuesday. The much tougher element was the X-47’s “shipboard handling”—moving the aircraft around the flight deck, getting it up and down the elevators, and managing it among the other manned aircraft, he said during a press briefing in Washington, D.C. The Navy’s operational follow-on to the X-47 is the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system program. Asked if Northrop Grumman would have to share what it learned with the other competitors for UCLASS—Boeing, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin—Vice said the company has “invested a tremendous amount of company funds” and years of effort in the X-47, considers it proprietary, and is “not in the business . . . of giving away” its hard-earned expertise. However, he’s certain the Navy would “use the data . . . to construct a fair and open competition” on UCLASS. Vice also said he believes the Air Force has been “watching” the X-47 program, and “I’m sure there is continued dialog between the services on that technology and the progress it’s made and any applicability to future Air Force needs.”