The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is making sea-based aviation a funding priority and, with unmanned combat and rotorcraft looking to enter the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps fleet alongside planned Joint Strike Fighters, researchers are touting the potential for dramatic effects on the basic nature of naval aircraft design.

The latest effort unveiled is new flight-control software meant to help aircraft “stick” carrier landings more cleanly. It could lead to major aircraft redesigns that would save money, reduce wear and tear on future aircraft and improve overall performance.

“The precision that we can bring to carrier landings in the future will be substantial,” says Michael Deitchman, deputy chief of naval research for naval air warfare and weapons.

A new algorithm embedded in the flight-control software augments the landing approach, the ONR says. Coupled with an experimental shipboard light system called a Bedford Array and accompanying cockpit head-up display (HUD) symbols, the software ties the movement of the pilot's control stick directly to the aircraft's flight path. Instead of constantly adjusting the aircraft's trajectory indirectly through attitude changes, the pilot maneuvers the aircraft to project a dotted green line in the HUD over a target light shining in the landing area.

“The flight-control algorithm has the potential to alter the next 50 years of how pilots land on carrier decks,” Deitchman says.

“It is almost like a video game,” says James “Buddy” Denham, the senior engineer who has been leading research and development efforts at Naval Air Systems Command. “You're tracking a shipboard stabilized visual target with a flight-path reference, and the airplane knows what it needs to do to stay there.”

Navy and Marine aviators conducting carrier landings today line up with a moving flight deck in a complicated process. Pilots must constantly adjust their speed and manipulate the aircraft's flight-control surfaces—ailerons, rudders and elevators—to maintain the proper glide path and alignment to the flight deck for an arrested landing. Throughout their approach, pilots eye a set of lights on the left side of the ship to see whether they are coming in too high or low.

While the new technology certainly would improve carrier-landing safety and efficiency, the new software also could have a long-term effect on life-cycle costs and perhaps even aircraft design, Deitchman says. For example, the new software could help reduce the amount of training pilots need to perform landings, leading to major cost savings.

More precise landings will also help make the whole operation more predictive, he says. That, in turn, could help reduce the load on aircraft and perhaps even change certain aircraft requirements. While reducing aircraft weight could cut maintenance, repair and overhaul costs, the larger impact could be on next-generation aircraft. Depending on the effectiveness of the flight-control software and lessons from its use, designers might rethink flight controls and related equipment. “We could start with a clean sheet of paper on aircraft design,” Deitchman says.

The ONR plans to put the technology into a Northrop Grumman X-47B surrogate for “ride-along” in at-sea evaluations this fiscal year. Researchers intend to start flight tests in fiscal 2015.