New drones offer out-of-theater advantages

Unlike the current Predator and Reaper drones, the next-generation models have jet engines and the ability to avoid enemy radar.

There was a secret flight over the Mojave Desert last week. Global Observer, an experimental unmanned aircraft system that can stay airborne for days and survey an area as large as Afghanistan at one glance, completed its first flight, the system's manufacturer, AeroVironment, announced today.

The four-hour, hydrogen-powered trip over the Southern California desert marks the beginning of high-altitude, long-endurance flight testing. Unlike the current Predator and Reaper drones, the next-generation models have jet engines and the ability to avoid enemy radar, reports W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times. In addition to the estimated $30 million Global Observer, two other drone models will be tested in the coming weeks at Edwards Air Force Base, the article states.

The Global Observer can fly above weather and conventional flights at an altitude of 55,000 to 65,000 feet, according to a company statement. That altitude allows sensors to survey a larger surface than a lower-flying plane could. A system equipped with two Global Observers can provide nonstop satellite-like coverage over anywhere in the world for much less than operating a spy satellite from space.

In fact, AeroVironment compared the spy plane to a satellite. “Global Observer is the first system designed to provide a 24/7/365 unblinking eye and continuous communications link over any location on the Earth’s surface for as long as needed,” said Tim Conver, AeroVironment's chairman and CEO, in a statement.

The Global Observer can be based out of theater because of its endurance and range, the company said. That not only reduces operating costs and air traffic congestion but exposes the system's human operators to less risk. The company will now expand the altitude and duration of test flights.

Meanwhile, a second experimental drone is Northrop Grumman’s bat-winged X-47B, capable of being launched from an aircraft carrier and carrying laser-guided bombs, writes the Los Angeles Times. The Phantom Ray aircraft, built by Boeing, is the third unmanned aerial system being tested in the coming weeks. It can sneak into hostile territory and destroy radar installations, paving the way for U.S. warfighters.

The planes don’t have production contracts at this time. But if the Pentagon buys them, it could stimulate Southern California’s aerospace industry.

“We’re entering an era that’s similar to the jet age for aviation,” defense expert and "Wired for War" author P.W. Singer told the Los Angeles Times. “These are capabilities that have never been fielded. These tests will point us in the direction of where we head next.”