Back in the 1990s, Lockheed Martin designed and built a high-altitude endurance Unmanned Arial Vehicle (HAE UAV) for the U.S. Department of Defense. The project was known as Project Dark Star.
Dark Star was part of the U.S. military’s push to use UAV aerial vehicle as reconnaissance vehicles.
UAVs provided another dimension to the military’s strategy. UAVs were designed to include various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems into one vehicle. The military commonly described this network of inter-connected systems as a “system of systems.”
This system of systems could provide military forces with large quantities of data and information without endangering the lives of soldiers. Project Dark Star was supposed to be the next stage in UAV technology.
Dark Star was a cooperative effort that included Lockheed Martin, Boeing and DARPA to design a stealth UAV that could be flown into heavily defended areas. The UAV aerial vehicle was truly unmanned.
Dark Star could take off, fly to the designated destination, operate the vast array of systems, transmit information, fly back to base and land without any human involvement whatsoever. The fully autonomous aircraft only required human intervention if a change to its flight path was required or its sensors needed to be re-positioned.
Autonomous, Stealthy and High Endurance
Not only was the UAV autonomous and stealthy, but it could perform at high altitudes and for long periods of time. According to the National Museum of the US Air Force, Dark Star:
“Would have flown at an altitude over 45,000 feet at a speed greater than 250 knots (288 mph). Designed to operate within the current military force structure and with the existing Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence equipment, it would have operated at a range of 500 nautical miles (575 miles) and would have stayed on station more than eight hours.”
The UAV carried either Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) or an Electro-Optical sensor. SAR is a form of radar which uses the relative motion between an antenna and its target region to provide distinctive signal.
Variations within the signal can provide finer spatial resolution than other types of radar.
An Electro optical sensor uses light or changes in light (visible and invisible) to provide information that regular photographs cannot provide. For example, an electro optical sensor can detect the difference between an area of vegetation and an area camouflaged to look like vegetation.
Though these two systems were impressive enough, Dark star had the capability to provide this information to technicians in near-real time to ground stations or satellites; an unprecedented feature of UAVs prior to Dark Star.
UAVs prior to Dark Star only provided this information after landing back at the home base. Therefore, if the UAV was lost or crashed, the information was lost with it. However with the advent of Dark Star, if the UAV was lost the information was still available.
Dark Star Didn’t Die
Though the UAV boasted a wide array of promising features, it was also plagued with problems. Initial proto-types suffered crashes.
Also, the military stated that Dark Star could not carry a sufficient payload to make further research worthwhile. Compounded with budget cuts, the military officially ended the project in 1999. However, the story does not end there.
In 2009, a decade after the official closing of the Dark Star project, Aviation Week reported a black UAV in operation in Afghanistan.
Even though the UAV sighted in Afghanistan was designated as the RQ-170 and appears to be designed more for tactical support rather than intelligence gathering, it has very similar characteristics to its 1990s counterpart, and rightfully so. According to the magazine, a former Lockheed executive stated, “Dark Star didn’t die . . . It just got classified.”