Geek Trivia: The (un)man with the plan

What unmanned aerial vehicle was the first to be certified to file its own flight plans with U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, meaning these aircraft can fly freely over the United States without any direct human pilot control?

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.


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