Jump to content

1960s CIA drone-bird project a predecessor to NASA Global Hawk


Recommended Posts

A recently unclassified CIA drone program provides us with perspective on UAS development. Also, U.S. high-altitude surveillance capabilities are being tested, another record has been achieved, and an award for the U.S. Air Force space plane.

1960s CIA Bird-Drone

Back when the U.S. was flying U2 spy planes over the Soviet Union and Gary Powers was on Russian TV after being shot down, the CIA got to thinking of another approach for gathering airborne intelligence.

Project Aquiline was an early drone project aimed at making overflight much less conspicuous — because the drone was built to resemble a bird.





With a two-stroke engine driving a pusher-propeller and an 8-foot wingspan, five prototypes were built and tested through 1967-68. The concept was to fly at lower altitudes than the U2, carrying equivalent camera and electronic surveillance equipment, but to be very difficult to observe from the ground.

Although a two-stroke engine might have been somewhat noisier than a large bird, later phases of the program envisaged a miniature nuclear power source which presumably would have been much quieter with a relatively huge range.

The project began in 1966, and prototypes began operational testing in 1968. The prototypes established a range of around 130 miles, took high-resolution images and successfully returned to the control site.

However, with many stages of development still to go (the cost to complete was maybe too high), the project was canned in November 1971.

Maybe this initial “bird” concept is where the name of today’s high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk drone originated — who knows?

NASA High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) UAVs

But the U.S. government seems to have other objectives than just high-altitude reconnaissance. NASA has operated the Global Hawk drone for science missions for a number of years, alongside the U-2 and ER-2 high-altitude manned aircraft.

Armstrong Flight Research Center operates two Global Hawks with support from Northrop Grumman out of Edwards Air Force Base.

Global Hawk is flown with a pre-loaded mission profile at upwards of 60,000 feet, sometimes for as long as 24 hours and more than 8,000 miles. Nevertheless, the aircraft is monitored over both satellite and terrestrial links, with direct sensor payload access throughout.



Global Hawk is powered by a Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine. It has a wingspan exceeding 116 feet, measures 44 feet from nose to tail, has a gross takeoff weight of 25,250 pounds and carries a 1,500-pound payload.

But this aircraft is massive compared to another recent high-flying project that NASA funded through a Phase I and II Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer (SBIR/SBTT) program.

With the help of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Swift Engineering in San Clemente, California, completed a two-hour flight test on July 7 of its High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) UAS, aiming to join the group of companies already in the high-altitude UAV club.

The 72-foot wingspan, solar-powered HALE weighs <180 pounds, carries a 10-15-pound payload and is destined to fly at up to 70,000 feet for more than 30 days.

This HALE aircraft is expected to complement existing NASA observation platforms and provide unique material alongside existing satellite data. Swift Engineering has been working with NASA Ames since 2016 on a proof-of-concept solar-powered UAS aimed at sustained flight for a month or more.

Swift researched solar panels and high-power, multiple-cycle rechargeable battery technologies to develop a system that could survive harsh temperatures as well as the radiation encountered at high altitude.

During the first of a series of flight tests at Spaceport America in New Mexico on July 7, operations at low altitude were completed to verify systems, aerodynamic control and power-system models. The July 7 flight was the first in a series to collect data and further validate the design.

With NASA, Swift has developed a UAS to not only meet observation objectives, but also one that aligns with the Federal Aviation Administration’s view of HALE deployment and maintenance during extended flights. For the test flight, the vehicle carried a NASA FluidCam for science missions, with a focus on mapping coastal reef systems.

NASA teams are exploring how aircraft such as Swift’s could perform as pseudo-satellites for air-quality monitoring, image coastal zones, map landslides and geologically active regions, and for real-time forestry and agricultural monitoring.

The next step in the development is expected to be a Phase III series of scientific observations at high altitude for days and even weeks.

Boeing X-37B Team Wins Collier Trophy

The Air Force/Boeing X-37B autonomous space plane has won the Collier Trophy for best in U.S. aeronautics/astronautics performance and safety in 2019.

The X-37B set a new 780-day on-orbit record and descended through the controlled U..S National Airspace System (NAS) to land at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Initially launched in 2010, the reliable, reusable and unmanned X-37B has provided space access and subsequent analysis for a large number of key experiments.



The space plane has now broken its previous on-orbit record of 718 days and has orbited for 2,865 days and more than 1 billion miles in total. Originally designed for only 270 days in space, the X-37B has established endurance records in every one of its last five flights.

Since 1911, recipients of the Collier Trophy have included Orville Wright, the Apollo 11 lunar landing team, the International Space Station team, the U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet team and the Boeing 787, 777 and 747 passenger aircraft teams.

Intelligence Gathering

News about the 1960 CIA drone developments, aimed at gathering unobserved photo reconnaissance intelligence, provide new perspective on NASA’s current-day use of high-altitude observation assets. These are the same types of assets that the U.S. currently uses for intelligence gathering, despite being recently intercepted by Russian jets off the coast of Alaska. It makes for interesting aspects of drone history, along with new aspects of (very) high-altitude unmanned capabilities.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.



If you enjoy our contents, support us by Disable ads Blocker or add GIS-area to your ads blocker whitelist