The role of unmanned drones in the US military is constantly evolving, with the Pentagon deploying unmanned craft for a number of critical missions, including surveillance and targeted attacks.
The aircraft have been doing quite well in various theaters, and have helped to significantly reduce casualty rates.
However, as of now, the drones are all flown remotely by a human pilot. This scenario might be different in the future, though.
As the LA Time notes, Northrop Grumman is designing an autonomous military drone capable of navigating without a real-time human controller.
The aircraft is dubbed the X-47B and, if actively deployed, may very well be the first completely automated aircraft system fielded by the Pentagon or any other military.
As expected, the X-47B would leverage onboard computers with sophisticated algorithms for guidance, while conducting a missions from start to finish with internal systems.
Yes, this may sound like the beginnings of a Skynet system to some. Yet, the X-47B is still many years from being deployed in the field. Even when on active duty the autonomous drone probably won't be armed and tasked with choosing its own targets. However, X-47B program manager Carl Johnson confirmed the drone "will do its own math and decide what it should do next."
Of course, how the X-47B will choose its targets or mission remains to be seen. But we do know that the aircraft will mark a number of firsts for the military. Not only will the drone be the first autonomous aerial system, it will also be the first totally unmanned aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier, ground runways, and to take off without intervention.
The X-47B conducted its maiden test flight in February of 2011.