May 6, 2013 at 4:35 PM ET
The UFO-shaped X-47B drone performed a first-of-a-kind landing trick that brings it a step closer to use as a carrier-based fighter craft for the U.S. Navy.
On Saturday, the drone made a short-range "arrested landing" on an airstrip at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.
Seconds after touchdown, an extended hook on the craft snagged a length of heavy-duty cabling draped across its landing path. The drone then came to a stop after a brief taxi, "within a few feet of its predicted path," according to Carl Johnson, vice president and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman.
This is the first time an unmanned craft has performed such a maneuver, says Northrop Grumman, maker of the X-47B. The experimental craft is the focus of the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle program, or UCAS.
"This precision, shore-based trap by the X-47B puts the UCAS Carrier Demonstration [UCAS-D] program on final approach for a rendezvous with naval aviation history," Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy's UCAS program manager, said in a statement
When it comes to drones that can be programmed for tricky flight maneuvers, the X-47B is a tad more sophisticated than the Predator and Global Hawk deployed by the military today. Those drones can be programmed to land themselves, but only when their touchdown target is terra firma. The X-47B will be the U.S. Navy's water baby.
"The peak of skill is among carrier aviators, it's a carrier deck landing," Peter Singer, drone whisperer at the Brookings Institution and author of "Wired for War," told NBC News. "An X-47 takes the human out of it."
The craft will use a similar landing trick when Northrop Grumman and the Navy test it on the limited airstrip aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. That demonstration is currently on the calendar for later this month.