The US Navy’s X-47B floated down toward the carrier USS George HW Bush at reduced speed and then caught an arresting wire on its tail hook, bringing it to a stop in a textbook landing.
“You saw the future today,” navy secretary Ray Mabus told journalists afterward.
The experimental plane had taken off about an hour earlier from the Patuxent River naval air station in Maryland before arriving at the carrier about 120km off the Virginia coast at about 1.40pm local time.
Naval pilots require years of training to learn how to land a fighter jet on a carrier floating at sea, one of the most daunting tasks in aviation.
But the unprecedented landing by an unmanned plane showed that sophisticated computer software could perform the same task, guiding a robotic aircraft safely onto the deck of a ship at sea.
The touch down by the unmanned plane, dubbed “salty dog” by the navy, represented a new era in naval flight, 102 years since a bi-plane made the first arrested landing on a ship.
Escorted by two F-18 fighter jets, the grey X-47B was perfectly aligned with the carrier deck as it made its descent, readjusting its position automatically with a GPS navigational system installed in the aircraft and on the carrier below.
In contrast to older model drones such as the Predator and Reaper, the X-47B can fly with more autonomy and does not require flight operators to exert constant step-by-step direction using a joystick.
The navy envisages the tailless plane playing a central role in all air wings aboard carriers, which currently rely on manned fighter jets and helicopters.
The successful arrested landing clears the way for the navy to press ahead with the programme and to invite bids from industry for production.
The drones, which are not due to be operational until 2019, will carry out surveillance as well as strike missions. They can fly 2,100 nautical miles before refuelling, allowing it to potentially carry out long-range bombing raids.