Specifics: Fixed-wing Aircraft
General Atomics MQ-1 Predator
Probably the most famous UAV in service today is the MQ-1 Predator. It is used mainly in the recon role but can carry two Hellfire missiles for point strikes. This craft is actually remote-controlled by people and is not an autonomous sort. The Predator has been in use since 1995, and has seen service in the skies over Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, and Yemen.
Another quote from Wikipedia:
“During flight operations the crew in the ground control station is a pilot and two sensor operators. The aircraft is equipped with Multi-spectral Targeting System, a color nose camera (generally used by the pilot for flight control), a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture infrared camera (for low light/night). Previously, Predators were equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze, but lack of use validated its removal to reduce weight. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produced still frame radar images. There is sufficient bandwidth on the datalink for two video sources to be used at one time, but only one video source from the sensor ball can be used at any time due to design limitations. Either the daylight variable aperture or the infrared electro-optical sensor may be operated simultaneously with the synthetic aperture radar, if equipped.”
One role that older, stripped down models of the Predator has been used for in Iraq, is to be a decoy for Iraqi air defenses. They have also been successfully armed with Stinger air-to-air missiles and have been used to “bait” Iraqi aircraft…
“An Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a Predator performing reconnaissance over the no fly zone in Iraq on December 23, 2002, after the Predator fired a missile at it. This was the first time in history a conventional aircraft and a drone had engaged in combat. Predators had been armed with AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles, and were being used to ‘bait’ Iraqi fighter planes, then run. In this incident, the Predator didn’t run, but instead fired one of the Stingers. The Stinger’s heat-seeker became ‘distracted’ by the MiG’s missile and so missed the MiG, and the Predator was destroyed.”
You can read about the Predator’s various updates here.
MQ-1 Predator armed with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile.
Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk
In role and design, the Global Hawk is similar to the Lockheed U-2, the 1950s spy plane. It is a theater commander’s asset to both provide a broad overview and systematically target surveillance shortfalls. The RQ-4 air vehicle is able to provide high resolution radar — that can penetrate cloud-cover and sandstorms — and Infrared imagery at long range with long loiter times over target areas. It can survey as much as 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) of terrain a day.
RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Lockheed Martin/Boeing RQ-3 DarkStar
The DarkStar was designed as a “high-altitude endurance UAV”, and made use of stealth technology to make it harder to detect. The DarkStar was fully autonomous, and could take off, fly to its target, operate its sensors, transmit information, return and land without human intervention. The RQ-3 carried either an optical sensor or radar, and could send digital information to a satellite while still in flight.