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Military Drones Present And Future: Visual Tour

Jan 03, 2013 (04:01 AM EST)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=240144476


A Jan. 2 drone strike against a Taliban leader in Pakistan near the Afghan border illustrates the expanded role that unmanned aerial vehicles are playing in U.S. military operations.

Militant leader Mullah Nazir and several Taliban fighters were killed by the attack, which involved at least two missiles, according to reports.

The Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly using UAVs for everything from battlefield surveillance to remote-controlled strikes against terrorists. Such strikes have also been blamed for civilian casualties in their pursuit of enemy targets.

And drones aren't limited to overseas operations. Military flights are increasingly taking place over U.S. skies, raising privacy and public safety issues, according to a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. When one of the Air Force's MQ-9 Reapers, described as "hunter, killer" drones, crashed in Nevada last month, a spokesman expressed relief that no one was hurt.

The Army and the Air Force are developing "sense-and-avoid" systems that will let military UAVs share U.S. airspace with commercial and private planes by automating how they maneuver. One such system will use cooperative sensors that work with the Traffic Collision Avoidance System used in civil aviation and with the FAA's Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system. Another is an optical system that looks for other aircraft and provides tracking information to a computer on the UAV.

The Navy plans to begin deploying UAVs on aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy last month lifted a Northrop Grumman drone, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, onto the USS Harry S. Truman. The X-47B is capable of flying preprogrammed missions, then returning to the carrier for landing. Its initial application will be refueling other aircraft while in flight, but the X-47B can also carry and fire weapons.

Other countries are developing or buying their own UAVs. Britain's Royal Navy recently tested a drone that could potentially be used from its ships, according to The Guardian. There's always the risk that a U.S. drone will fall into the wrong hands. A few weeks ago, Iran claimed to have captured a U.S. Navy drone that had entered its airspace. Navy officials denied that it was theirs.

Military drones range from lightweight flying machines that can be launched by hand, to the Air Force's 11,000 pound X-37B, which is about one-quarter the size of NASA's space shuttle. The X-37B, pictured above, took off on an Earth-orbiting mission on Dec. 11, a secretive project that will test the feasibility of long-duration military space flights.

The "reusable space plane" was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on an Atlas V rocket by the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office, which develops combat support and weapons systems. The X-37B is dwarfed by the rocket and fairing used to lift it into space. From top to bottom, the whole system is 196 feet long. The X-37B itself is 29 feet long and 10 feet high.

The Pentagon has used UAVs for more than 50 years. Some, like General Atomics' Predator, have established their utility through years of service, but new designs, such as UAVs equipped with laser weapons, keep pushing the boundaries on what drones can do. Following is our guide to U.S. military drones in their many shapes and sizes.

Image credit: Air Force




An armed MQ-9 Reaper, successor to the Predator and made by General Atomics, is pictured here taxiing down a runway in Afghanistan. The Reaper's guided bombs have been used against improvised explosive devices located in the roadway.

Image credit: Air Force

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The RQ-4 Global Hawk, like many military drones, is designed to gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. Air Force and Navy officials have discussed joint training with the Northrop Grumman-made RQ-4.

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The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft flies a mission over southern Afghanistan. Notice the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles attached to the wings. The MQ-1 is providing armed reconnaissance against so-called "perishable targets" in the area.

Image credit: Air Force

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The tail-less X-47B is a strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft developed by Northrop Grumman under the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program. The Navy plans to use the X-47B to demonstrate the first carrier-based launches and returns of an autonomous, unmanned aircraft. The tests could help set the stage for development of a permanent, carrier-based fleet of unmanned aircraft.

Image credit: Navy

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Here's another look at the X-47B as it's lowered onto the USS Harry S. Truman, the first aircraft carrier to host the testing of an unmanned aircraft. With a 62-ft wingspan, the X-47B can fly at 40,000 ft.

Image credit: Navy

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The Navy awarded Boeing several multimillion-dollar contracts in 2005 to supply the ScanEagle for use in the Persian Gulf. The Marines used the drones in Iraq to compile real-time images of the battlefield. They can be used individually or in groups to "loiter" over trouble spots and provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Equipped with an infrared camera, the ScanEagle is capable of flying at an elevation of 16,000 feet.

Image credit: Boeing

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Boeing's Phantom Ray successfully completed a 17-minute test flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California last year. The UAV flew to 7,500 feet and reached a speed of 178 knots. It's designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; autonomous air refueling of other aircraft; electronic attack; and other strikes against enemy targets.

Image credit: Boeing

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Boeing's liquid-hydrogen powered Phantom Eye completed its first test flight in June 2012 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. With its 150-foot wingspan, the UAV climbed to just over 4,000 feet at a speed of 62 knots. Phantom Eye's environmentally friendly propulsion system (its "exhaust" is water) will let it stay aloft 10 miles high for up to four days. But watch out below: Upon landing, the vehicle's landing gear dug into the lake bed and was damaged.

Image credit: Boeing

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Aurora Flight Science's Excalibur is intended to fill a gap between piloted fighter jets and armed drones that require remote piloting. An advanced flight control system operates the Excalibur with a high degree of autonomy, so ground-based operators can focus on finding targets instead of flying. The aircraft is designed to carry Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and other weapons. Its design allows for vertical takeoffs and landings.

Image credit: Aurora Flight Sciences

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Aurora Flight Science's Orion is designed for high-altitude, long-duration surveillance, or what military officials call "persistent" intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). It's able to fly for five days with a half-ton payload at 20,000 feet.

Image credit: Aurora Flight Sciences

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The Shadow 200, also called the RQ-7B by the Army, is used for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and battlefield assessment. Manufactured by AAI, the aircraft extends visibility as far as 125 kilometers from a tactical operations center. Its capabilities include providing targeting data for precision weapons.

Image credit: Marine Corps

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Northrop Grumman's Transformational Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or simply Fire Scout, is designed to provide situation awareness and precision targeting. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land on warships and landing zones. The unmanned helicopter flies at 20,000 feet.

Image credit: Northrop Grumman

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Developing the skills to fly UAVs is vital to the military's expanding use of them. This training center at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., provides flight simulators and maintenance and classroom instruction.

Image credit: Stephen Potter

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K-Max, another unmanned helicopter, is based on a conventional helicopter design. Used by the Marines since 2007, primarily for hauling cargo, it can lift and deliver three tons of equipment when cruising at low altitude and more than two tons at 15,000 feet.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

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The Multi-Use Technology Testbed, a.k.a. Mutt, is a small, unmanned aircraft developed by the Air Force Research Lab to test technologies for use in new kinds of lightweight, flexible aircraft. It's one of the Air Force's so-called X planes, this one designated the X-56A. The 7.5-foot-long aircraft has a 28-foot wingspan and is being built by Lockheed Martin.

Image credit: Air Force Research Lab/Lockheed Martin

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The easy-to-assemble Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) is a modular system that can be set up and airborne within 10 minutes. Pictured here is the T-Hawk, manufactured by Honeywell, designed for use in support of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and with real-time video capture for "hover and stare" situations.

Image credit: Navy

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What could possibly be smaller than the Micro Air Vehicle? This little drone, a Nano Air Vehicle (NAV), is an extremely small, ultra lightweight flying machine that can be used for both indoor and outdoor military missions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is exploring flapping wing and other configurations that are maneuverable, but surreptitious. Design features include high lift-to-drag airfoils and efficient propulsion and power systems.

Image credit: DARPA

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If you've ever thrown a paper airplane, you have a general idea of how to get the Puma AE (All Environment) into the air. It's small, simple and rugged, and it can land on the ground or water. Designed for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting, the Puma is equipped with both an electro-optical camera and an infrared camera.

Image credit: Aerovironment

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Boeing is developing a reusable booster system demonstration vehicle called the RBS Pathfinder. So far, the experimental vehicle is only a concept, as depicted in this artist's rendering. Plans call for the RBS Pathfinder to be able to autonomously return after upper-stage separation and land on a runway near the launch site using a technique called "rocket back," which manages the booster's energy and flight path.

Image credit: Boeing

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The High Altitude Airship is a next-generation military blimp. Lockheed Martin describes it as an untethered, unmanned lighter-than-air vehicle that operates above the jet stream in a geostationary position. Its potential functions include surveillance, telecommunications relay and weather observance. Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Army launched this prototype in July 2011, demonstrating its communications capabilities, solar array electricity generation, and remote piloting and control.

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

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The Persistent Threat Detection System is battle tested. Equipped with multi-purpose sensors for long-endurance intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications, the PTDS has been used in support of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its components include an aerostat, tether, mooring platform, mission payloads and power generators.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

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