The letter Q is a powerful icon amongst the geek set. For fans of the classic James Bond novel and movie series, it refers to the witty and ingenious gadget-maker, Q, memorably portrayed onscreen by the late Desmond Llewelyn. In Star Trek, Q refers to both a character, Q, played by John de Lancie, and the Q Continuum, a race of ostensibly omnipotent beings that enjoy interfering in the affairs of humanity. But in aerospace circles, Q often has a very particular connotation — with its own sci-fi underpinnings — as Q is the U.S. military designation for an unmanned aircraft.
Put another way, Q is code for a flying American robot soldier.
Granted, we’re still a long way from the HK-Aerial flying Terminators we’ve seen in the eponymous movie franchise, but we’re getting closer every day. (For the cyber-paranoid among us, if the United States ever built an HK-Aerial, it would be classified as the VQAL-16 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. The V for vertical takeoff and landing, Q for unmanned aircraft, A for ground attack, L for laser weapons, and 16 because that’s the next available number in the Q series. The number may change, but the letter-string will be a dead giveaway that Skynet is here and using Uncle Sam to build airborne Terminators.)
Some of these Q vehicles are little more than radio-controlled planes with cameras attached. Case in point, the RQ-14 Dragon Eye, which the U.S. Marine Corps uses for short range reconnaissance missions. It’s three feet wide, launched with a bungee cord, and designed to shed components to ease crash landings (which suggests crashes aren’t infrequent). Compare that with the MQ-9 Reaper, a full-sized airplane (about double the size of a Cessna 400) that can stay aloft for 14 hours when fully armed with a combination of Hellfire missiles and Paveway II laser-guided bombs. Q can mean a lot of things, when speaking of aircraft, and not all of them imply an autonomous flying death-robot, but don’t rule the aero-Terminator images out entirely.
That said, at least one U.S. military unmanned aerial vehicle has been granted a rather staggering degree of autonomy by aircraft authorities. This robot plane has been certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to file its own flight plans through American air space, meaning it will be allowed to fly entirely unpiloted over the United States, without any direct human control required.
WHAT UNMANNED AIRCRAFT IS CERTIFIED TO FILE ITS OWN FLIGHT PLANS WITH THE FAA?
What unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was the first to be certified to file its own flight plans with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, meaning these aircraft can fly freely over the United States without any direct human pilot control?
The aircraft in question is the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a jet-powered reconnaissance drone that has set a number of aviation firsts for unmanned aircraft. Besides its U.S. flight plan credentials, the RQ-4 has permission to operate in a non-wartime capacity in more than a dozen countries and international airspace. It holds the current endurance record for a UAV with a flight time of 30 hours, 24 minutes, and 1 second, established on Mar. 21, 2001. On that same flight, it set a UAV altitude record of 19,928 meters (65,380.6 feet), which has since been broken only by the NASA Helios high-altitude research drone prototype. The RQ-4 also became the first UAV to cross the Pacific Ocean, flying from Edwards Air Force Base to the RAAF Base Edinburgh in Australia on April 24, 2001. That flight also set an absolute distance record for UAVs that still stands today, with a logged flight distance of 13,219.86 kilometers (8,214.44 miles).
While the primary operators of the RQ-4 are military in nature, NASA does own and operate two Global Hawks for high-altitude research projects, so don’t be surprised if an unmanned aircraft is riding shotgun for some of your favorite space scientists in the near term. NASA also has access to a demilitarized version of a slightly more martial UAV, the aforementioned MQ-9 Reaper. The first MQ-9 variant is the Altair, which has an enlarged wingspan and is used by NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise. A second, more standard MQ-9 variant, the Ikhana, is operated by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and has been employed, among other missions, to help observe and fight Southern California wildfires. (Hey, a robot plane that helps to protect a state run by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator parallels never end.)
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also operates an unarmed MQ-9 Reaper for border patrol operations. Thus, robot planes flying in civilian airspace are now a somewhat standard aviation occurrence, thanks to the trail blazed by the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Cue the scary music.
That’s not just some auspicious autonomous aviation advance; it’s a fearfully futuristic flight of Geek Trivia.
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