The U.S. Navy this week announced it has — for the first time — successfully launched the X-47B combat-capable aerial vehicle from an aircraft carrier and, separately, set a new record for flight endurance with a fuel cell-powered UAV with the Ion Tiger. The X-47B’s testing Tuesday saw it launch from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush during flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia coast. The launch was followed by several low approaches and a flight mission to the naval base at Patuxent River, Md., that also demonstrated a ship-based to land-based transfer of control. Also this week the Navy reported that its Ion Tiger unmanned vehicle set a record for endurance, flying 48 hours and one minute on liquid hydrogen fuel.
The Ion Tiger is a surveillance drone that used a new cryogenic tank to hold fuel, which it converted to electric energy to drive an electric motor. Using a fuel cell-based energy source for the electric drone allows it to operate more efficiently, improving endurance while lowering its heat signature. According to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), fuel for the aircraft can be made from water on site rather than fuels that would otherwise need to be delivered. While the Ion Tiger set its own record, the British QinetiQ Zephyr holds the overall endurance record for drones, flying for 14 days at the U.S. Army’s proving ground in Yuma, Ariz., back in 2010. The Zephyr is a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle that uses solar power and rechargeable batteries to collect and power its electric motors.