US drone makes first catapult launch off a carrier: Navy

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Navy successfully launched an unmanned plane off the deck of an aircraft carrier for the first time on Tuesday, in what officials called a breakthrough for robotic aviation.

The bat-winged X-47B drone took to the air after being launched by a catapult aboard the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia, a Navy spokeswoman said.

"I can confirm it was successfully launched at 11.18am," Navy Lieutenant Katie Cerezo told AFP.

The aircraft carried out several low approaches to the carrier before landing in Maryland at the US naval air station at Patuxent River after a 65-minute flight, the Navy said.

The test flight marked the first catapult launch of a robotic, unmanned plane from a carrier at sea, and Navy officers called it a "milestone".

"This historic event challenges the paradigm of manned carrier landings that were first conducted more than 90 years ago," Rear Admiral Mat Winter, who oversees unmanned aviation for the Navy, wrote on the service's website.

The experimental aircraft, which looks like a smaller version of the B-2 stealth bomber, is supposed to clear the way for a new line of drones that would carry out bombing raids from a carrier.

The Air Force and Army already have a large fleet of robotic aircraft but the Navy hopes to catch up with the X-47B, the unmanned Fire Scout helicopter and other drones that can stay in the air for hours to spy or attack an adversary.

The X-47B can reach an altitude of 40,000 feet (about 12km) with a range of about six hours or 2,100 nautical miles (3,900km), and has two weapons bays that can carry a payload of up to 4,500 pounds (2,040kg).

With a much longer range than manned fighter jets, the robotic bomber could transform naval warfare in the same way drones have reshaped the battlefield on land.

Controlled by mouse click from a "mission operator" on the carrier, the aircraft has more autonomy than current robotic aircraft, according to Northrop Grumman, which manufactures the drone.

The plane flies a preprogrammed mission and the operator "does not actively 'fly' it via remote control as is the case for other unmanned systems currently in operation, according to a fact sheet from Northrop.

Rights groups have voiced concern over the advent of more autonomous combat aircraft that could allow robots to wage war semi-independently. Human Rights Watch has cited the X-47B in particular as a potentially alarming advance.

The group has called for a "pre-emptive prohibition" on fully autonomous robotic weapons, which it says would endanger civilians and violate the principles of international humanitarian law.