The US navy will attempt to land a drone the size of a fighter jet aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time, showcasing the military’s capability to have a computer program perform one of the most difficult tasks a pilot can be asked to do.A successful landing of the X-47B experimental aircraft would mean the navy can move forward with plans to develop another unmanned aircraft that will join the fleet alongside traditional aeroplanes to provide around-the-clock surveillance while also possessing a strike capability.The aircraft’s success would pave the way for the US to launch unmanned aircraft without the need to obtain permission from other countries to use their bases.The X-47B experimental aircraft will take off on Wednesday from naval air station Patuxent River in Maryland before approaching the USS George HW Bush off the coast of Virginia. The drone will try to land by deploying a tailhook that will catch a wire on board the ship and bring it to a quick stop, just like normal fighter jets do.The manoeuvre is known as an arrested landing and has previously only been done by the drone on land.Landing on a ship that is constantly moving while navigating through turbulent air behind the aircraft carrier is seen as a more difficult manoeuvre .“Your grandchildren and great grandchildren and mine will be reading about this historic event in their history books. This is not trivial, nor is it something that came lightly,” said Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the Navy’s programme executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.Just like a traditional aeroplane, if the landing has to be called off for any reason at the last second it can perform a touch-and-go manoeuvre . It performed nine such manoeuvres in May, when it also took off from an aircraft carrier for the first time.The X-47B will never be put into operational use, but it will help navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those could begin operating by 2020, according to Winter. Four companies are expected to compete for a contract to design the unmanned aircraft, which will be awarded in 2014.The two experimental aircraft that have been built for the first round of testing will be retired and placed in museums at Patuxent River and at Pensacola in Florida.The move to expand the capabilities of the nation’s drones comes amid growing criticism of the US’s use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.Critics in the US and abroad claim that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight. Defence analysts believe drones are the future of warfare.The X-47B is far bigger than the Predator, has three times the range and can be programmed to carry out missions with no human intervention, the navy said.While the X-47B is not a stealth aircraft, it was designed with the low profile of one. That will help in the development of future stealth drones, which would be valuable as the military changes its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, where a number of countries’ air defences are a lot stronger than Afghanistan’s.While Predators are typically piloted via remote control by someone in the US, the X-47B relies only on computer programs to tell it where to fly unless a human operator steps in. The navy says the aircraft relies on precision GPS navigation, a high-integrity network connection and advanced flight control software to guide itself.Developed by Northrop Grumman under a 2007 contract at a cost of $1.4bn (£940m), the X-47B is capable of carrying weapons and is designed to be the forerunner for a drone programme that will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting, according to the navy.“It has taken several years of software development, thousands of simulated landings in high-fidelity labs and many hours of flight test in the Patuxent River landing pattern to prove this aircraft is up for the challenge,” Captain Jaime Engdahl, programme manager for the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System wrote in a blogpost. “Today X-47B is ready.”The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000ft and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles, against 675 nautical miles for the Predator. The navy plans to show the drone can be refuelled in flight, which would give it even greater range.