How the MQ-9 Reaper Works

Imagine these Mexican free-tailed bats laden with incendiary bombs.
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The MQ-9 Reaper represents the cutting edge of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, but the idea of using unmanned entities to wage aerial war isn't new. In the early days of the United States' involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved research into a plan to release bomb-wielding bats from airplanes.

The bombs -- small kerosene-filled incendiary tubes that operated on a chemical time-release fuse -- were connected to a surgical clip with a short piece of string, and the clip was attached to a bat's chest. The idea was to cool the bats down into a state of forced hibernation, initiate the chemical fuse, attach the device, load the placid bats onto a plane and then release them over a target area. Ideally, the bats would seek shelter in buildings, chew through the string (separating themselves from the devices) and then the device would detonate, setting enemy infrastructure on fire.


What actually happened is that a bunch of hibernating, bomb-laden bats were dropped to their deaths from an airplane. Six thousand bomb-rigged bats gave their lives in these military experiments.

The experiments did give researchers insight into possible problems that UAVs may cause or encounter. For one, it was unlikely that many people would support the type of loose targeting standards enforced by bomb-laden bats that flew astray into civilian territory. During the course of the experiments, researchers witnessed this problem firsthand when some of the armed bats escaped and fire-bombed an Army airplane hangar and a general's car.

Fast-forward to the present, in which unmanned combat drones are flying over the skies of Iraq and bombing caves in Afghanistan Before long, these drones will be sent in formation not to search quietly and relay information about enemy troops or fortifications as previous generations of UAVs have, but to attack them. The MQ-9 Reaper is nothing short of an unmanned aerial bomber squadron -- and it'll only become more sophisticated and lethal.

In this article, we'll learn about the robotic combat systems in use and what systems the military is developing for the future. But first, we'll take a look at the history of unmanned flight.



A Brief History of UAVs

Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell gets an MQ-0 Reaper ready for a training flight at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev. The Reaper has a long line of UAV predecessors.
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Using bats to carry incendiary bombs into enemy territory wasn't a good idea, and it wasn't the first bad idea in the history of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). During the American Civil War, an inventor patented an unmanned balloon that carried explosives that could be dropped after a time-delay fuse mechanism triggered the basket to overturn its contents. Air currents and weather patterns made it difficult to estimate for how long to set the fuse, and the balloon was never successfully deployed.

By 1883, the first aerial photograph was taken using a kite, a camera and a very long string attached to the shutter-release of the camera. In 1898, this technology was put to use in the Spanish-American War, resulting in the first military aerial reconnaissance photos.


World War I saw the development and testing of various radio-controlled unmanned aircraft, but none emerged from the testing phase in time to be used before the war ended.

­In the­ 1930s, the British Royal Navy developed a primitive, radio-controlled UAV: the Queen Bee. The Queen Bee could be landed for future reuse and could reach speeds of 100 mph (160 km/h). Instead of being used offensively though, the Queen Bee primarily served as aerial target practice for British pilots.

During World War II, Nazis developed a UAV to be used against nonmilitary targets. The Revenge Weapon 1, an unmanned flying bomb better known as the V-1, could reach speeds of almost 500 mph (804 km/h), carry 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) of explosives and could travel 150 miles (241 kilometers) before releasing its ordnance. Its wingspan was about 20 feet (6 m), and it measured nearly 25 feet (7.6 m) long. In towns and cities across Britain, the V-1 was responsible for more than 900 civilian deaths and 35,000 injured civilians [source: NOVA].

In the 1960s and 70s, the United States flew more than 34,000 surveillance flights using the AQM-34 Ryan Firebee, a UAV launched from a host plane and controlled by operators within that plane. The U.S. also employed UAVs called Lightning Bugs that were released from airborne C-130s for missions over China and Vietnam. Engineers from the manufacturer operated the aircraft with a joystick control.

In the late 1970s and 80s, Israel developed the Scout and the Pioneer, which represented a shift t­oward the lighter, glider-type model of UAV in use today. The Scout was notable for its ability to transmit live video with a 360-degree view of the terrain. The small size of these UAVs made them inexpensive to produce and difficult to shoot down.

The U.S. acquired Pioneer UAVs from Israel and used them in the Gulf War. On at least one occasion, Iraqi soldiers attempted to surrender to one of the UAVs as it flew overhead [source: NOVA]

­Although UAV technology saw sporadic development throughout the 20th century, it wasn't until the Predator drone arrived on the scene that unmanned aerial vehicles earned a permanent place in the arsenal. To understand the Reaper, it'll help us to know a little about its direct predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. We'll read about this landmark UAV next.

Reaper DNA: The Predator

This Predator is capable of carrying and firing weapons like the Hellfire missile. Its design provided the inspiration for the Reaper.
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The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) spent more than $3 billion in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) research and operations in the 1990s [source: DOD]. Considering that a B-2 bomber alone costs around $1.5 billion, it wasn't a bad investment: Today, UAVs play a very important role in military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as surveillance missions across the globe.

The MQ-1B Predator, an unmanned, lightly armed surveillance aircraft, is the direct predecessor of the MQ-9 Reaper. The Predator has a 49-foot (14 m) wingspan and can climb to about 25,000 feet (7.6 kilometers). There are somewhere between 320 and 400 individual Predator drones in use today [source: Air Force]. The use of UAVs like the Predator and the Reaper is growing rapidly within the Air Force, and other branches of the military are showing interest in them as well. The Air Force intends to double its use of the Predator by 2010 and will quadruple the number of UAV air crews it trains each year [source: Broshear].


The MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone was introduced in 1996 and was first used in a war zone during the 78 days of the 1999 Kosovo conflict. About two dozen UAVs (Predators as well as other models) were used for surveillance purposes during NATO air operations over Kosovo, and nine of them were shot down [source: Wall Street Journal].

In February 2001, the Predator served its first offensive purpose, successfully firing an armed Hellfire missile in a test trial. It destroyed an unoccupied target tank in the process. One year later, a missile fired from a Predator killed an alleged planner of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Five other suspected al-Qaida members also died in the attack. It was a display not only of the Predator's power but also its wide-ranging command-and-control configurations: The U.S. pilot operating the Predator was stationed in Djibouti, while the commander overseeing the operation was in Saudi Arabia. If you're interested in learning more in-depth information about the Predator drone, read How the Predator UAV Works.

As the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hunt for al-Qaida members continued, the United States found more use for the offensive strike capabilities the Predator offered. Though it was designed to be an eye in the sky, military planners have retrofitted the Predator with a little muscle as well. Armed Predators are officially designated MQ-1Bs. Though they're armed relatively lightly with only two Hellfire missiles, Predators are lethal and have been responsible for killing both high-level targets in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as possible targets, such as insurgents spotted planting roadside bombs.

Aside from a quick ambush of an unsuspecting target, Predators don't pack much of a punch. Enter the MQ-9 Reaper, which was designed to address this issue. While the Predator is a surveillance platform with weapons capabilities, the Reaper is a hunter/killer with surveillance capabilities.

The 140 mph (225 km/h) speed of a Predator is suitable for hovering back and forth in the skies in search of troop movements, the coordinates of which can be called in to a nearby fighter jet. The 300 mph (482 k) top speed of a Reaper, on the other hand, is better suited for quickly targeting and destroying enemy personnel and vehicles that are on the move. The Reaper can fly about nine times farther and twice as high as the Predator, and it doesn't require any fighter jets for backup. It proved its muscle when it began flying missions in October 2007.

Now that we know a little about the lineage of the Reaper, we'll learn more about what it's capable of next.

Reaper Capabilities: What Can It Do?

A Reaper takes off at Creech Air Force Base.
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One important thing to remember about the Reaper (and the Predator as well) is that the Reaper is a weapons system and not just an individual drone. Each Reaper system consists of four individual Reaper drones operated by four different flight teams (we'll talk about these flight teams a little more in the next section). The whole system costs about $54 million to build [source: USAF].


Controlling the Reaper

Air Force Senior William Swain operates a sensor control for an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission on Aug. 8, 2007, at Creech Air Force Base.
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As of June 2008, there were 27 U.S.-operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air around the clock. But with no pilots in the aircraft, how was this possible? The MQ-9 Reaper is more than a drone: It's a weapons system. As such, when it's in operation, various people and facilities must be in close coordination.

Let's examine a basic drone flight for a moment, starting with its location at a military base in Iraq. Each Reaper drone is operated remotely by a team of two: a pilot and a sensor operator. The pilot's primary function is flying the plane, while the sensor operator monitors the performance of the many different sensor systems (like infrared and night-vision cameras) utilized by the Reaper.


The Reapers are deployed in groups of four. Each Reaper -- which is similar in size to a small business jet -- is controlled by its own two-airman team located at a ground control station. This station may be located in the theater of operations, like Balad Air Base in Iraq, or it may be located far from the flight path, such as at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. (British flight teams also operate their Reapers from the Air Force's UAV control center in Nevada).

The teams are actually able to switch control of the drone midflight. So a team at an airbase in Iraq may be responsible for takeoffs and landings from its base but then hand over control to a team in the United States. Why would they do this? Remember that the operation of these UAVs is in motion 24 hours a day. It's more efficient to have some teams dedicated to getting them airborne and bringing them back down safely and others dedicated to fulfilling specific missions. This way, there are fewer teams overseas landing drones all day and more teams based in the United States who are responsible for the Reaper during the duration of its mission, which might last as long as a full 24-hour day. A crew responsible for takeoffs and landings may have absolutely no idea where the aircraft has been in the interim period.

During a training mission at Creech Air Force Base, a pilot's display at the ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the beginning of the Royal Air Force's involvement with the Reapers, only combat pilots in top physical form (without even a hint of a common cold) operated the Reapers, though their American counterparts needed only a second-class medical certificate [source: Almond]. On the other hand, some nations have less exacting standards for drone-operators than they do for fighter pilots. Medical issues that may disqualify some military members from further flight operations in a jet may extend their career flying a drone. The use of drones allows nations to maintain a presence in the sky with less strain on the pilots' families as well, since the pilots aren't necessarily in the middle of a war zone.

The crews receive visual information about the Reaper's surroundings by way of satellite link. The pilot is able to fly the craft using the color feed provided by the camera located in the front portion of the Reaper. What's more, the Reaper can transmit surveillance footage directly onto soldiers' laptops in the field.

In the next section, we'll look at some of the different tasks a Reaper can carry out.

The Reaper: A Multitasking Bird of Prey

Accused of espionage over Russia in his U-2 surveillance plane, Gary Powers attends his trial in Moscow on Aug. 18, 1960.
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In 1960, the Soviet Union shot down U.S. U-2 surveillance plane and captured its pilot, Gary Powers. The USSR tried, convicted and imprisoned Powers and used the incident to score propaganda points at home and abroad. This incident sheds quite a bit of light on the advantages of using unmanned surveillance flights over unfriendly territory.

But with the many advantages of such a powerful piece of equipment come just as many precautions and responsibilities. The Reaper's main purpose is to hunt and kill enemy combatants constantly. It's also used to provide reconnaissance data to military and government officials. The 42nd Attack Squadron of the U.S. Air Force currently operates all of the Air Force's Predator and Reaper UAVs out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. This is quite a responsibility: The unmanned drones are used more in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other Air Force weapons system [source: Broshear].


The Reaper can be outfitted with different mission kits, depending on what its mission will be. For instance, it can be equipped with a mix of weapons and surveillance equipment, depending on whether the mission is to destroy an enemy convoy or secretly locate a remote base in the Afghani mountains. On the other hand, it can be armed with four Hellfire missiles and a pair of 500-pound (226-kilogram) laser-guided bombs or various other configurations.

The dual purpose of the Reaper is best understood when it's compared to the Predator in action. In June 2006, a Predator tracked and located Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida, in Iraq. However, the Predator flight crew had to request assistance with the mission from an F-16 because the Predator didn't have enough explosive ordnance to destroy the safe house where al-Zarqawi was hiding. It turned out that the al-Qaida leader was killed by the F-16, but the delay could have allowed him to make a getaway. With this type of scenario in mind, the Reaper was designed to eliminate any delay in tracking a target and striking it -- it can do both.

The UAV's original purpose was reconnaissance, and although its design has shifted to reflect an emphasis on attack, Reapers are adept at high-flight spying. This ability can be put to use in several ways. Unmanned reconnaissance flights remove some of the burden of manned flight crews when around-the-clock surveillance is needed, such as the enforcement of the no-fly zones over Northern and Southern Iraq that began in the 1990s. UAVs can also search for suspected weapons sites, mass graves or movement of military troops or equipment.

A variety of sensors onboard the Reaper provide real-time data for operators to analyze. The Reaper has infrared capabilities and can provide color video images during daylight flights or image-intensified video at night. Various imaging capabilities can also be viewed separately, or the video streams can be fused. The Reaper's data collection equipment sends back live feeds, enabling military and government officials to react immediately to ongoing developments or rapidly changing situations. The pilot may be in audio communication with a commanding officer or personnel on the ground, who can request a flyover of a nearby hostile area to gain information or to give leads to the pilot about possible enemy locations. Live satellite images can even be beamed down to a field commander's laptop.

The Reaper is being used in battle zones and manhunts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Use of the weapons system could be more widespread than that, but because the Reapers' missions are carried out covertly, we can't be sure. In the next section, we'll look at a few ethical and legal issues surrounding the use of the Reaper MQ-9.

Reaper Issues

Mechanics get a Reaper ready for a training flight at Creech Air Force Base.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The use of unmanned weapons systems brings up several ethical and legal issues. While the Reaper provides its operators with greater safety than manned aerial vehicles, it's actually at the forefront of otherwise risky missions. There's no risk of having a pilot taken hostage, killed or used for propaganda purposes when a plane is downed in an area it's not supposed to be under any circumstances, like the case we discussed earlier with U-2 pilot Gary Powers in the USSR. So does that mean the Reaper will push the limits when it comes to its missions?

As we've continue to adopt and adapt UAV technologies, plenty of questions have come up. For instance, will nations using UAVs invade the airspace of other nations for military or intelligence purposes more often? It's a definite possibility, especially when such transgressions can be easily written off as a case of a UAV having simply gone astray while on a practice mission. What's more, concerns have been raised about whether the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (as well as ground-based unmanned vehicles) will fundamentally change the nature of war. These questions include:


  • Will the absence of a pilot lead to more risk-taking, specifically in choosing which targets to attack?
  • Will foreign soldiers lose respect for a military ally that doesn't endanger its own pilots in a war zone?
  • Will use of UAVs lead to further increases in the number of assassinations being carried out against terrorist suspects?

In addition to legal and moral issues with the Reaper, there are also technical issues of some concern. Reapers aren't equipped to locate other airplanes, which leaves them susceptible to midair collisions. Some people dismiss these concerns, saying that this may be a problem if the drones are being operated in training exercises over U.S. territory but that the odds of collisions happening over the remote skies of places like Afghanistan are quite low. Additionally, future developments in the drone's systems may very well incorporate the ability to detect and steer clear of other aircraft.

Another potential problem with the Reaper is its construction. We've seen that its lightweight design has advantages, but it's also susceptible to high winds and precipitation. During adverse weather conditions, the Reaper is required to be grounded. This is a considerable problem, since many of the Reaper's missions take place over the turbulent mountainous regions of Afghanistan.

But for all the questions the Reaper has raised, the technology has also offered some valuable solutions. In the next section, we'll look at more peaceful uses of the same unmanned flight technology now being used to hunt and kill.

Other Uses for the Reaper

An MQ-9 Reaper takes off on a training mission at Creech Air Force Base.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If you're on the side of the road planting a bomb, a swarm of robotic drones overhead may be cause for alarm. However, if you're waist-deep in floodwaters trying to get a signal with your cell phone, a network of communications drones overhead would be a welcome sight. There are some interesting possible uses for unmanned aerial flight systems, and we'll take a closer look at one of them in this section.

As ideas for alternative uses for UAVs and the technologies that support them become more advanced, researchers are pursuing new ways to use unmanned aircraft. One of these ideas comes from researchers in Switzerland who are developing a type of unmanned drone called a Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) that could be released in great numbers over disaster areas. Swarming MAVs -- known as SMAVs -- would be able to reestablish a communications network by creating a wireless network that the drones maintain. This network is known as ­a SMAVNET.


For SMAVNET technology to work, the aircraft would have to be small, lightweight and relatively cheap. The aircraft would also have to be short on frills such as GPS navigating systems or live video feeds. Current SMAV models have small electric motors and weigh as little as around 13 ounces (368 grams). The SMAVs are constructed out of very strong but flexible industrial foam, which helps keep their weight at an absolute minimum.

The drones would be truly robotic, operating without human guidance. Ideally, they could be sent airborne and then coordinate with each other using basic sensors that send information about the altitude and velocity of each craft. Researchers are still looking for ways to determine algorithms that would allow the SMAVs to maintain line-of-sight connection with one another without colliding or adding more danger to the disaster area they're meant to be aiding. Scientists are studying the networks established by army ants as they locate and signal to other ants the sources to food and the pathways between them.

For lots more information on the Reaper and related UAV technology, see the next section.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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