During the 1990s, the United States Air Force showed renewed interest in UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). These airplanes could fly high over defended areas, observe and record information, and even locate and mark targets -- without endangering a pilot. Two versions of "High-Altitude Endurance" UAV were created, the Darkstar first flying in March 26, 1996.
With a fuselage built by Lockheed Martin and wings built by Boeing, the RQ-3A incorporated stealth technology to keep it difficult to detect as it cruised along at 45,000 feet. Carrying either a radar or optical sensor, the UAV could immediately send digital information to a satellite, allowing data to be examined even before the Darkstar returned home.
The first Darkstar crashed on its second flight and a modified, more stable design first flew in June of 1998. Two additional RQ-3As were built, but they never flew. In 1999, the Department of Defense terminated the Darkstar program due to budget cuts.
The Darkstar was fully autonomous -- meaning it could take off, fly to the target, operate its sensors, transmit information, return, and land all without human intervention. If the battlefield situation changed while the Darkstar was airborne, operators could change the UAV's flight plan and redirect its sensors via radio or, if the plane was out of range, through commands relayed through satellite links.
This aircraft is on loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.