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X-47B drone returns to roost after historic flight testing

130710-N-TB177-135 ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 10, 2013) An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completes an arrested landing on the flight ...
An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completes the first ever autonomous arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.MC3 Kevin J. Steinberg / U.S. Navy

Northrup Grumman's X-47B drone has completed its final flight and has headed home to its base, possibly for the last time. The entirely autonomous aircraft was the test bed for a number of future drone features, and the first to successfully land itself on an aircraft carrier.

"Salty Dog 502," as the operating X-47B is known (it has a twin not being flown at present), was temporarily staying at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, having flown there after scrubbing a landing attempt on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. A minor error was detected in its software and the test operators decided to have it land at a safe location instead of the carrier.

The aborted landing came after two successful ones over the last few weeks — the first ever such landings by an autonomous aircraft. The X-47B was created as a demonstration craft for the purpose of attempting such firsts, but will never see production. It was also the first autonomous craft to make a successful catapult take-off, earlier this year.

Friday saw the craft make a successful flight back to the Navy's Patuxent station, where it and the only other X-47B built will remain for now. The Navy may think up "additional test operations," or the two now-venerable drones may be packed off to the Navy museum.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is