Unmanned aircraft reached a major turning point this week.
FORTUNE — When the Navy’s unmanned and autonomous X-47B aircraft touched down on the carrier deck of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush Wednesday, it marked a defining moment for aviation and the end of a development program some 10 years in the making. With its place in history secure — the X-47B is the first unmanned aircraft to make an arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier, and that’s only the latest of it’s many “firsts” — the experimental aircraft is slated for retirement, having met all of its program requirements and captivated Twitter for at least one afternoon. Though Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert indicated yesterday that the Navy may keep the drones active and out of museum hangars for a short while longer, yesterday’s flights will likely be among the X-47B’s last.
But for naval aviation and drone technology in general, the end of the X-47B program is just the beginning. The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAS) that made aviation history Wednesday was one of just two built by Northrop Grumman for the Navy to demonstrate technologies that are pulling naval operations — many of which were developed in the first half of the last century–into the digital age. These technologies include precision GPS and relative navigation systems that will become commonplace in future naval air wings (both manned and unmanned) as well as various technologies and strategies that will allow unmanned planes to work safely alongside their human-piloted counterparts.
Navy brass call this “digitizing the carrier airspace,” and it represents a full-blown paradigm shift for the Navy as it begins the process of integrating unmanned aircraft — including armed strike aircraft — into its carrier-capable fleet. It also marks the beginning of the race for what’s next. What’s been lost amid the cheering for the X-47B is that the UCAS program was really less about the aircraft and more about the platform. With the platform in place, now begins the challenge of building the actual product.
The X-47B was born out of a need to incorporate unmanned aircraft into the naval fleet, largely for persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISRT) missions. That is, the Navy wanted something fast and stealthy, and with a long enough range, that could essentially keep a constant eye on the areas surrounding its carrier groups while also helping manned fighters identify targets and, if necessary, deliver limited strike capabilities itself.
Such a drone would offer U.S. Naval forces a unique capability to deliver strikes in hostile airspace without putting pilots at risk and at ranges far exceeding that of manned fighter jets. This also serves the dual purpose of allowing the Navy’s prized aircraft carriers to remain farther away from increasingly potent anti-ship threats like land-based medium range ballistic missiles (that’s a thinly veiled euphemism for China).
The X-47B, in many ways, is that aircraft. Its sleek, tailless, “cranked-kite” batwing design offers it a reduced radar signature, and though its lack of a tail makes it less stable, the fact that it pilots itself via computer means it can make thousands of small corrections per minute to compensate. Human operators control the X-47B by telling it where to go and what to do, but the aircraft handles the actual piloting itself — there is no aviator remotely controlling it with a joystick — making it immune to such vulnerabilities as low visibility or good old-fashioned human error.
But more important than the aircraft itself is the technology underpinning it that allows it to trade data with computers and positional sensors aboard the aircraft carrier a hundred times per second. That, along with a new interface that essentially digitizes the many vocal commands and visual signals already used by carrier flight deck crews so that a computer can understand them, means that the Navy now has a platform in place that it can use to integrate any future robotic aircraft into its operations.
That’s why Wednesday’s landing of the first robotic airplane on an aircraft carrier is so significant, and that’s why this is really a beginning rather than an end. UCAS was a technology demonstration program. Its follow-on program — the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program, or UCLASS — is where the aviation skunkworks of some of the biggest names in aerospace are going to take this new platform and try to build a game-changing product for it — an actual carrier-capable combat drone for active service in the U.S. Navy.
Though the specifics of UCLASS are technically under wraps at this point, leaked naval documents obtained by the U.S. Naval Institute loosely outline what the Navy wants from its combat drone of the future: a fast, long-range, autonomous, unmanned aircraft capable of launching from and landing on an aircraft carrier and operating at up to 2,000 nautical miles from the carrier while carrying 3,000 pounds of payload (plenty for a few of the 500-pound guided JDAM bombs). In an ISRT role it must be able to fly two un-refueled orbits of the carrier at 600 nautical miles, or a single un-refueled orbit at 1,200 nautical miles, offering the Navy persistent eyes over the ocean like it has never had before.
Four companies are currently drawing up proposals for UCLASS — Northrop Grumman NOC , Lockheed Martin LMT , Boeing BA , and General Atomics (maker of the now ubiquitously-known Predator and Reaper UAVs). All will have access to the platform developed during the X-47B program, and each will try to build an even better robotic aircraft around it. And this will be a proper race; the Navy wants to put its UCLASS aircraft in service starting in 2020.
That’s not an unreasonable timeline given the frenetic pace of innovation in both unmanned aviation and robotic autonomy. Consider traditional aviation’s historical trajectory: From the first launch of a manned aircraft off a ship in 1910, it took three decades (and World War II) to really hone naval aviation to a science, and another three decades (and a Cold War) to evolve it into the modern, jet-powered sea and air force the Navy is today. But in roughly 15 years, unmanned aviation technology has gone from that first generation of noisy, non-stealthy, lumbering remote-controlled surveillance aircraft to what the world caught a glimpse of Wednesday: an autonomous fighter jet that pilots itself, packing more and better technology than the average manned fighter jet.
Even as the Federal Aviation Administration works to integrate civilian drone technology into the national airspace and a burgeoning domestic drone industry stands poised to become a significant segment of the larger aerospace sector, the pace of innovation in this space continues to accelerate unabated. The X-47B made aviation history, sure. But far more importantly, it made aviation’s future.