Drone of the Day: Blackjack

William M. Arkin · 07/24/15 09:35AM

The Blackjack (RQ-21A) was deployed last year. For the Navy and Marine Corps, it fulfills a requirement for a small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS) to follow-on to the ScanEagle. And it is the first military drone that is open architecture, that is, based upon a non-proprietary operating system, allowing it to integrate almost any payload, as long as it complies with the 25 pound limit and the power capacity (called size, weight, and power or SWaP).

Drone of the Day:  Shadow

William M. Arkin · 07/22/15 11:15AM

If one drone could be a tank, it would be the Shadow. A hardy and known king of the battleskies, the Shadow is one of the few combat drones that demands its own unit to operate, and it’s assigned as standard equipment to every brigade-sized formation, just like artillery.

Drone of the Day: Puma

William M. Arkin · 07/21/15 10:00AM

Who even knew that Puma was an acronym—Pointer Upgrade Mission Ability— or that it has become the standard small drone of special operations forces? It provides capabilities never before available in small craft, and is significantly different than Raven. All of these small drones have some crucial difference that add range and flexibility, but only as costs increase with newness and then decline as serial production commences.

Drone of the Day: Pointer

William M. Arkin · 07/20/15 10:15AM

Little heralded or known, in the actual revolution that brought small drones into virtually every combat unit of all four military services, Pointer was a pioneer. Developed first for the Marine Corps in 1986, Pointer was the first hand-held drone—45 pounds and transportable in a backpack. They were used in Desert Storm in 1990 and ended up being the first drones on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11, later serving in Iraq.

Drone of the Day: Orion

William M. Arkin · 07/17/15 08:55AM

A flight of 80 hours and almost three minutes. More than three days. That’s the world record the Orion drone set last December, more than doubling the previous record set by a Global Hawk in 2001. It’s got a ridiculously long wing, 135 feet long, more than the height of a 12 story building. That and two turbo-diesel engines make Orion soar, sleek cousin to Phantom Eye and another pretender to the throne of... being another drone.

Drone of the Day: Fire Scout

William M. Arkin · 07/16/15 08:30AM

Just because something works, we don’t necessarily need it. Such is the case with Fire Scout, a Navy unmanned helicopter that operates from small ships, though it can fly 115 miles or so from its mother ship. But is there any reason to have an unmanned helicopter that operates at sea? One that, in the era of a fully networked global intelligence system, is redundant. One that would be highly vulnerable in a real war with a peer adversary. Is it just because we can? That unmanned everything is now within reach? There’s nothing wrong with Fire Scout per se, but in its story is an interesting parable: That just because something isn’t attracting Washington enemies bellowing about cost or “fraud, waste and abuse,” doesn’t mean we should keep using it.

Drone of the Day:  Phantom Eye

William M. Arkin · 07/15/15 10:20AM

Phantom Eye (or something like it) will someday be the bloated centerpiece of defending the United States (and its allies) from Russian or Chinese nuclear attack. Carrying what’s called a directed energy weapon, it will lurk at high altitude, ready to disable or fry an incoming missile. It is the dream of an airtight Star Wars strategic defense from which technological Cold Warriors never awoke.

Drone of the Day: The Drone We Might Use If Iran Is Lying

William M. Arkin · 07/14/15 12:10PM

This is CICADA. Half science project and half special access program of the highest classification, CICADA represents a new class of “swarm” drones and unmanned capabilities that are unlike anything we’ve seen in war before.

Drone of the Day: ScanEagle

William M. Arkin · 07/13/15 10:30AM

Rent a drone. Things became so bad in Afghanistan and Iraq—last time that is, before the surge and before the sausage factory could churn out enough official drones—that the military started renting them. Pixel-by-the-hour, they called it: Contractors would own them and operate them.

Drone of the Day:  Black Hornet

William M. Arkin · 07/10/15 12:30PM

At four inches by one inch and weighing half of an ounce (16 grams), Black Hornet is more Pixar character than fighting drone. And like a Pixar character, one gets the sense that though it is now in the secret agent arsenal of at least three countries—the United States, Britain and Israel—it could easily be swatted away, with the use of a powerful fan as an effective countermeasure.

Drone of the Day: Pioneer

William M. Arkin · 07/09/15 11:10AM

Gone, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Pioneer has the distinction of being the only U.S. military drone that has flown in every major conflict from 1991’s Desert Storm to the 2003 Operation Return for Another Try. Officially retired in 2010 after its “successful” use by the Marines in al Anbar province in western Iraq, Pioneer has flown. And flown. And flown.

Drone of the Day: Predator

William M. Arkin · 07/08/15 10:25AM

Predator wasn’t the first drone, but it’s become the only drone: the one we know by name, the one that kills, the high-flying border-ignoring angel of death.

Drone of the Day: X-56A

William M. Arkin · 07/07/15 02:45PM

If there is a future in unmanned commercial aviation, it is currently being explored by NASA in the form of the Lockheed Martin X-56A. Its adaptive structures and modular wing and tail surfaces are meant to be the cutting edge for designing future surveillance drones and transport aircraft. A little less than two years ago, the Air Force Research Laboratory flew the X-56A for the first time at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now named Armstrong Flight Research Center) in California. After the Air Force-sponsored tests, the X-56A was transferred to NASA where it flew its inaugural flight on July 26 last year. It’s currently being flown in “NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technology (AATT) project’s Higher Aspect Ratio Wing subproject, Performance Adaptive Aeroelastic Wing element.” A very fancy name for a project that supports low-emission, high efficiency aircraft with less aerodynamic drag.

Drone of the Day: S-100 Camcopter

William M. Arkin · 07/06/15 10:35AM

Here’s an oddity in the world of drones: The S-100 Camcopter, manufactured by the Austrian company Schiebel, is operated by both the super-secret SEAL Team 6 and the Chinese Navy. Both the Pakistani and Indian armed forces fly it (the video above is courtesy of the Brazilian Navy). One has mysteriously crashed in Somalia (clue, it wasn’t Chinese). The drone has been secretly procured by the Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) to hunt for roadside bombs in places like Iraq.

Drone of the Day: Hunter

William M. Arkin · 07/02/15 11:20AM

Ancient by information age standards, Hunter is an Army drone that’s been in use since the Kosovo War in 1999. At 2,000 pounds, it’s neither sleek nor personal, more of a family car that’s hardy enough to have abundant cup holders than a hot rod. But with a heavy fuel internal combustion engine that allows it to operate from unimproved airstrips, Hunter can fly for over 18 hours, giving it the endurance and range necessary to support ground operations out to some distance.

Drone of the Day: XFC

William M. Arkin · 07/01/15 11:05AM

The technology of the future is already upon us. Not much stands in the way of drones that can fly in any environment and loiter for hours, autonomously searching—looking, but also waiting to pounce.

60 Days of Drones, Day 2:  Global Hawk

William M. Arkin · 06/30/15 12:05PM

Global Hawk is one of those drones so monumental and confounding that it becomes a perfect target for our cynical tendency to search for negatives, to decry the high cost and delight in mechanical flaws—as if any war machine could be perfect.

60 Days of Drones, Day 1: Nano Drones

William M. Arkin · 06/29/15 11:20AM

Today we begin a new series: 60 Days of Drones. For the next two months, we’ll try to cover the full gamut of drones used by the U.S. government—letting you know what you should about the unmanned aircraft patrolling the skies on behalf of the United States. In the end, we’ll have a full card deck of the drones of today and the future. Stay tuned.