Global Hawk Autonomous Aircraft

NASA and the Northrop Grumman Corporation have recently unveiled a new unmanned aircraft system named Global Hawk. It is the world’s first fully autonomous high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft designed for environmental science research and features unprecedented flight time and altitude capabilities.

Although lately the Global Hawk models are not in much use, NASA and Northrop Grumman have decided to return two Global Hawk aircrafts to flight this year. NASA plans to use the aircraft to support scientific research that requires high-altitude and long-distance airborne capabilities. “These Global Hawks represent the first non-military use of this remarkable robotic aircraft system. NASA’s partnership with Northrop Grumman has made this possible,” said Kevin L. Petersen, director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

According to NASA, the Global Hawk can fly at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet for more than 31 hours at a time. The agency says that its capabilities make it a vehicle that could benefit the advancement of science, provide improvement of hurricane monitoring systems and other disaster support tools (Global Hawks were used to help monitor wildfires in Southern California in 2007 and 2008), as well as boost the development of advanced autonomous aircraft system technologies.

The U.S. Air Force transferred the Global Hawks to NASA in December 2007. These were among the first seven built in the original Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program, which was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The program aimed to accelerate and facilitate the application of mature advanced technologies in order to provide near-term solutions that meet military requirements.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also partnered with NASA to develop this new airborne research vehicle. NOAA’s participation in the project is currently limited to management, development of scientific instruments, and piloting of the Global Hawks. However, according to released reports, it does plan to be more involved in future research campaigns.

“These UAVs [unmanned aircraft vehicles] will provide superb new measurement possibilities for our climate science and applications programs,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington. “This collaboration is a model for NASA’s wide-ranging Earth-observation activities to advance our understanding of Earth as an integrated system, which are critical to developing responses to environmental change here and around the world.”

TFOT has previously covered the X-47B drone, a stealth UAV designed by Northrop Grumman,
American Dynamics’ AD-150 UAV, a novel UAV capable of vertical take-off and landing, and the Heliplane, DARPA’s latest air vehicle, which combines vertical take-off and landing with the speed and efficiency capabilities of a fixed wing aircraft. Another related TFOT story covers the development of super quiet UAVs, which are being built by researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta.

For more information about the Global Hawk, see NASA’s press release.

Image icon credit: NASA

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