A Brief History of Unmanned Aircraft

From bomb-bearing balloons to the Global Hawk

An MQ-1 Predator over a mountain range in Nevada. (MSgt Scott Reed)

RQ-4 Global Hawk

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(Department of Defense)

Soaring even higher than the Predator—which the military considers a medium altitude UAV—the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long endurance aircraft with performance and sensor capabilities so impressive it’s scary. Born out of a 1995 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) request, the Global Hawk can fly more than 32 hours at a stretch and loiter at altitudes as high as 65,000 feet, with a suite of sensors that can see through clouds, dense fog, haze, and dust storms. Thanks to a data transmission rate dozens of times faster than a T1 line, operators can view very high resolution imagery of wide swaths of the ground below.

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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, Highest Valor (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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