America's drone programs took a major step forward on Friday after the US Navy announced the experimental X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator successfully carried out air-to-air refuelling from a tanker, the last of the milestone the X-47B project was intended to accomplish.
The test took place Thursday off the coast of Maryland. X-47B "Salty Dog 502" successfully plugged into a tanker aircraft, demonstrating that an unmanned, tailless and jet powered drone can not only take off and land on an aircraft carrier but can also refuel while airborne.
It had already been demonstrated that un-piloted aircraft can refuel air-to-air but it wasn't known if a robotic combat-worthy carrier-based variant could do it too.
When the X-47B made its first debut, Captain Martin Deppe of the US Navy said "The X-47B will demonstrate how unmanned combat aircraft can operate from aircraft carriers [...] extending the carrier's reach and power projection from anywhere in the world."
The X-47B had previously demonstrated that it could take off from - and, more notably - land on an aircraft carrier at sea. Such arrested landings have long been known to be one of the most difficult and dangerous feats for human pilots to master. US naval aviators are known to measure their manhood by the number of these "traps" in their logbook.
The original X-47B contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman back in 2004 by DARPA, alongside a similar land-based effort, the X-45. The US Air Force cancelled the X-45 but the Navy decided to carry the X-47B forward.
The two robot jets will now be retired, either to museums or the Pentagon's famous desert aircraft boneyard in Arizona, which means there are more fearsome and highly top secret drones in the pipeline we don't yet know about.