Navy official: Drones will only get more advanced

(CBS News) The technology behind drones is developing rapidly. Today, drones used to attack targets are flown by remote control by pilots on the ground. But a new generation has no pilot at all. They can be completely guided by computer.

A new type of vehicle being developed by the Navy looks like stealth bomber and could probably carry 4,000 pounds of weapons, but there's no pilot in the cockpit. Navy Capt. Jaime Engdahl is director of what's called the X-47B Project.

"It is an autonomous vehicle so it's flying itself ... It's a very unique aircraft," Engdahl said.

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This afternoon, responding to a computer program, the X-47B launched from a land-based catapult at a Navy test facility in Maryland.

"The test went very well and it's very significant because this is the first time we're actually doing catapult shots with a vehicle with nobody in the cockpit," Engdahl said.

The X-47B has already performed taxi tests aboard the USS Truman and will soon attempt the first unmanned take off and landing from an aircraft carrier.

"We're working the carrier schedules right now so sometime this spring or summer [the drone will take off and land on a carrier]," Engdahl said.

An X-47B being tested by the Navy. This model drone is slated to be ready for use in 2017.
An X-47B being tested by the Navy. This model drone is slated to be ready for use in 2017. CBS News

The Navy has not yet decided to arm the X-47B. It could be used for other missions such as surveillance and electronic jamming of enemy air defenses. But it could also be used to strike heavily defended targets without risking a pilot's life. Engdahl said a drone like that could one day carry weapons.

Putting armed drones aboard an aircraft carrier would give the U.S. Navy the capability to launch unmanned strikes virtually any place in the world.

"The biggest thing is that you don't have to worry about permission from other countries to operate a vehicle from foreign airfields," Engdahl said.

The X-47B is not scheduled to reach the fleet until 2017, but when it does, drone warfare will go to a whole new level.

David Martin's full report on the future of drones will air this Sunday, on "CBS Sunday Morning."

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.