Unmanned Airborne Warriors

The U.S. military is increasingly calling on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to gain battlefield advantage in Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the globe.  Whether gathering intelligence or directly attacking hostile targets, these unmanned airborne warriors have proven their worth. Here’s a look at seven UAVS that are currently in operation or in development.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

The turboprop MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. In killer mode it can carry up to 14 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or a mix of Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. Weapon use is controlled by a pilot on the ground. It has a maximum speed of 300 mph, a ceiling of 50,000 feet and can stay aloft 14 hours fully loaded. Its takeoff weight is 10,500 pounds and it has a 66-foot wingspan. For comparison, the maximum takeoff weight of an F-16 manned fighter is 42,000 pounds. The Reaper can fly pre-programmed routes autonomously, but the aircraft is always monitored or controlled by ground aircrew.  Its predecessor was General Atomic’s QM-1 Predator, which was a lethal scourge of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel

Developed by Lockheed Martin’s fabled Skunk Works, which gave birth to famous aircraft such as the U-2, SR-71 and the F-117 stealth fighter, the RQ-170 Sentinel is a flying wing, pure jet stealth UAV. It was dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” after it was observed in operation near Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Little is known about the Sentinel’s details or capabilities, but Aviation Week magazine estimates that it has a 66-foot wingspan and a takeoff weight of 8,500 pounds. As spy shots of the aircraft in flight and on the ground flooded the blogosphere and aviation enthusiast media last year, the U.S. Air Force reluctantly confirmed the UAV’s existence, saying “The RQ-170 will directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets.”

Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk

With a wingspan of 116 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 26,750 pounds, the RQ-4 is one of the larger UAVs currently in service. The Q in its name is the Department of Defense designation for an unmanned aircraft system. A high-altitude, long-endurance UAV, the Global Hawk provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability worldwide in support of wartime, contingency and peacetime missions. It provides near-continuous, all-weather, day and night wide area surveillance and will eventually replace the U-2. It has a ceiling of 60,000 feet and is controlled from the ground by a three-person crew that consists of a launch and recovery pilot, a mission pilot and a sensor operator.

AAI Corporation RQ-7 Shadow

Unlike most UAVs, which take off and land on a runway like conventional aircraft, the Shadow is shot into the air in 30 feet via a trailer-mounted hydraulic launcher and is stopped when it lands by arresting gear similar to planes landing on an aircraft carrier. It transmits full-motion video day and night from a distance of up to 75 miles. The Shadow can stay aloft for up to nine hours, has a cruise speed of 90 knots and a ceiling of 15,000 feet. Its pusher propeller engine uses motor gasoline; the aircraft has a 20-foot wingspan and a maximum gross weight of 460 pounds. Known as the “eyes of the commander," the Shadow is used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

AeroVironment Puma-AE

The Puma-AE (All Environment) is a hand-launched UAV designed for both land-based and maritime operations. Capable of landing in salt water or on land, it meets a wide range of mission requirements, including intelligence, surveillance, target assessment and reconnaissance. The Puma has a nine-foot wingspan, a speed of 20 to 45 knots and an operating altitude of 500 feet. It weighs 13 pounds and can stay in the air for two hours. The Puma completes its mission with a deep-stall landing, which involves auto-piloting to a near-hover and dropping to the ground or water.  It has been selected by the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as its All Environment Capable Variant (AECV) solution to meet its Small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) requirement.

AeroVironment Wasp

The tiniest of the current crop of UAVs in service, the Wasp is used by the U.S. Air Force to provide real-time situational awareness and target information for Air Force Special Operations Command Battlefield Airmen. It enables Combat Controllers and Tactical Air Control Party Airmen to engage hostile forces and protect themselves. With its electric motor, powered by rechargeable lithium ion batteries, it has a maximum speed of 40 mph and an operating altitude of 50 to 1000 feet.  It has a two-foot wingspan and tips the scales at a hair under one pound. The Wasp can function autonomously from takeoff to deep-stall recovery, or it can be manually controlled by one operator using a hand-held control device. It has a range of three miles and can stay airborne for 45 minutes.

Northrop Grumman Fire-X

Though fixed-wing UAVs dominate the category, they don’t have a complete monopoly on unmanned aerial action. The Fire-X medium-range vertical unmanned aerial system is currently in development with first flight expected by the end of the year. The Fire-X combines the reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition architecture of the U.S. Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV, which takes off and lands vertically, and the extended range, payload and cargo-hauling capabilities of the commercially mature FAA-certified Bell 407 helicopter.  The result is a fully autonomous, four-blade single-engine unmanned helicopter that will support battlefield demand for enhanced situational awareness.