Look out, everybody, because here come the unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as UAVs or drones. They've been flourishing in the Iraq War, starting with just a few unarmed drones when the conflict began in 2003, and now growing in numbers to more than 7,000. Many are packing serious missiles and bombs, and some soon could be autonomous. This is undoubtedly the dawn of an entirely new era of military might: robot wars.
Flying over battlefields in a variety of shapes and sizes, the aircraft are controlled from either the battlefield itself, thousands of miles away, or anywhere in between. They can keep an eye on bad guys wherever they may roam, and some can even blow them up at a moment's notice. One reason they're so compelling for military types: They present no danger to their pilots. To help you recognize and identify these scary robotic birds, we picked out a representative sample of six of these these soulless, empty flyers for you to contemplate.
Micro Air Vehicle
Honeywell's insect-like micro air vehicles, affectionately known by soldiers as a "flying beer keg," are used for surveillance. The 13-inch hovering devices are small enough to carry in a backpack, yet large enough to carry a camera that's just right for finding improvised explosive devices. The first generation is too noisy, though, and not reliable enough, so Honeywell is preparing a second generation model that should be ready for the battlefield by next year.
This catapult-launched spy plane has a 10-foot wingspan and is 4 feet long, and can stay in the air for more than 20 hours. It's been used in the Iraq war since 2005. It's equipped with an image-stabilized high-resolution video system that transmits its signal back to its base, which can be 62 miles away. When it's finally time for it to land, it flies into a catching system called a SkyHook, consisting of 30- to 50-foot pole that snags the plane's wingtip. Try that with a manned aircraft!
RQ-4 Global Hawk
Called "one of the most coveted pieces of military technology in the world," this $35 million remotely piloted aircraft is powered by a turbofan engine and is about the size of a fighter plane. It can fly for 12,600 miles at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet for 30 hours. Used primarily for surveillance, its bulbous nose carries classified sensing devices including various GPS devices, infrared cameras, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can see through clouds and even sandstorms. Sending its data back to its base at 50Mb per second, it can precisely identify exactly where moving targets are located. As of this year, the planes have flown for more than 30,000 combat hours.
This is the bad boy of the fleet, the hunter-killer UAV that you don't want to see flying overhead if you're a bad guy. Two operators at a base in the desert near Las Vegas control this baby via a satellite link, with one piloting the aircraft and another operating its sensors (too bad there's a lag of 1.2 seconds for their input to reach the Reaper). Its 950hp turbo prop can fly it to an altitude of 60,000 feet, carrying a payload of about 3,000 pounds. On board: a variety of precision-targeted missiles and bombs, along with a camera that can read a license plate from 2 miles away. These drones are capable of autonomous missions, but the Air Force still insists on using human pilots. For now.
With its 29-foot length and 14-foot wingspan, the X-37B is a quarter the size of the Space Shuttle. But unlike the shuttle, most of its functions are top secret. In fact, the Air Force didn't want anyone to know anything about the specific mission of this unmanned military vehicle, which for now will probably be used for various types of surveillance. Strangely enough, the only reason we know anything about it is because it was spotted orbiting high overhead by amateur satellite watchers, who determined it must be on a spy mission because of its telltale routine of passing over the same location on the ground every four days.
Behold the future of aerial drones — this one could be the scariest of them all. It's designed to be launched either from land or catapult-launched from ships, and could be refueled in midair, letting it fly indefinitely. This stealthy 19-foot-long aircraft will have the smarts to carry out its own missions, and the oomph to carry 4,500 pounds of bombs, missiles, and surveillance gear. There's even talk of loading it up with lasers and microwave weapons. Look out, everyone, because this is the flying killer robot of your nightmares.