Carol Tue Apr 09, 2013 4:24 pm
You can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about drones, but the concept of unmanned planes waging war isn’t a new one. Lockheed-Martin pioneered the concept in the 1990s with a project code-named DarkStar. This was a top secret development mission to produce an unmanned reconnaissance drone with stealth capabilities, and even though the project was terminated in 1998 rumors circulated that it was brought back as an undercover “black ops” protocol and used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The RQ-3 DarkStar was designed as a "high-altitude endurance UAV", and incorporated stealth technology to make it difficult to detect, which allowed it to operate within heavily defended airspace, unlike the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which is unable to operate except under conditions of air superiority. The DarkStar was fully autonomous: it could take off, fly to its target, operate its sensors, transmit information, return and land without human intervention. Human operators, however, could change the DarkStar's flight plan and sensor orientation through radio or satellite relay. The RQ-3 carried either an optical sensor or radar, and could send digital information to a satellite while still in flight. It used a single jet engine of unknown type for propulsion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RQ-3_DarkStar
The first prototype made its first flight on March 29, 1996, but its second flight, on April 22, 1996, ended in a crash shortly after takeoff. A modified, more stable design (the RQ-3A) first flew on June 29, 1998, and made a total of five flights before the program was canceled just prior to the sixth and final flight planned for the airworthiness test phase. Two additional RQ-3As were built, but never made any flights before program cancellation.
Although purportedly terminated on January 28, 1999, it was reported in April 2003 that the RQ-3 was still in development as a black project. The size and capabilities were reported to have increased somewhat. It was further alleged that the first such example had been used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There has been no independent confirmation.
The "R" is the Department of Defense designation for reconnaissance; "Q" means unmanned aircraft system. The "3" refers to it being the third of a series of purpose-built unmanned reconnaissance aircraft systems.