What is a remotely operated spy plane?

Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Spy planes are typically thought of as flying at very high altitudes from some secret location. However, the United States military uses something very similar in concept to the usual radio controlled model airplane. What makes these unmanned planes so special is that they fly by remote control, up to about 90 mph, at an altitude of up to 12,000 feet. They use an ingenious telemetry system -- a pilot on the ground sits at a control panel very similar to a normal plane's cockpit! The pilot can control the plane with the instruments just a pilot who was flying a full-size plane would.

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) can be launched without a runway with rocket assisted takeoff (RATO). Then, a 26-horsepower Sachs air-cooled twin-cylinder engine takes over.

Pioneer Pusher-Prop Engine

The pioneer typically lands on a 3,000 foot runway, and can take off in about 1,200 feet, without using the rocket assist. When the plane launches from a ship with a rocket, the controller recovers it by flying it into a recovery net on the stern of a vessel.

A remotely controlled zoom camera pod on the bottom of the plane takes real-time video and forward-looking infrared images for night sorties:

Pioneer Camera

The images are transmitted to the ground station via a C-Band/LOS transmitter. The Pioneer transmits uplinks through both C-Band/LOS and UHF. 

Pioneer UHF Antenna

The Pioneer can also be used to sense atmospheric threats such as radiation, chemicals, and weather conditions. The planes can be disassembled in about five minutes for shipment aboard manned aircraft and a variety of vessels.

On the ground or aboard ship, one pilot does the take-off and landing. Another pilot does the actual flying... all by instruments, including a remotely read fuel gauge. The sophisticated electronics has its own externally mounted heat sink shown at the left side:

Heat Sink on Pioneer

Here are some interesting links:

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