Source: Northrop Grumman
Source: Northrop Grumman

It's not going to overshadow Chuck Yeager or the Wright Brothers, but when a drone aircraft's tailhook snatched a wire stretched across the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush near Virginia Tuesday, mankind entered a new era of flight. Not only was Northrop Grumman's X-47B the first unmanned vehicle to land on an aircraft carrier, but it also did so guided exclusively by its built-in computer program.

That’s right: no remote pilot, no joystick, no human guidance.

The X-47B is what's known as an "autonomous" system, about halfway between model airplane and fully intelligent robotic killer. It takes off and lands with the aid of computers aboard the carrier (if needed, it can get some fine-tuning from a human on the deck wearing what looks like a bionic forearm). On a mission, the craft flies itself based on directions and commands sent by human controllers to its onboard computer.

Calm down, technophobes. While the drone has some capacity to deviate from its pre-programmed actions if it detects condition changes, it can't "think" for itself and isn't going to turn on its human master like HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The X-47B does, however, move us closer to the day when an unmanned combat system may have to make its own call on whether to take lethal action, a scenario that brings with it enough ethical questions to keep a major university philosophy department busy for years.

On more practical matters, the drone's advantages are hard to ignore. The X-47B, with its 62-foot-wide batwing design, can reach 40,000 feet and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles, far greater than a carrier-based fighter jet and three times that of the Predator drone widely used in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Centering the Pentagon's drone capabilities offshore would obviate the need to get permission to use foreign bases for takeoffs and landings, which has proven such a lightning rod in Pakistan.

Despite today's triumph, the end is nigh for the X-47B itself. The $1.4 billion program is being wound down, and the two existing test aircraft will soon be gathering dust in museums. Nonetheless, the Navy is betting heavily on an unmanned future, with plans to award a contract within the next year for a fleet of carrier-based drones to be active by the end of the decade.

As a side note, today's mission may have been nearly as important for the landee as for the lander: Congressional investigators last month asked for a delay in building the second of the Navy's new Ford-class aircraft carriers because of cost overruns and design failures on the first. There are few good arguments to justify spending billions on more of these lumbering white elephants of the oceans, but becoming the linchpin of the U.S.'s drone force could ensure their budgetary survival.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)