The RQ-170 Sentinel is a high altitude and long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed and manufactured by Skunk Works, a division of Lockheed Martin Corporation, for the United States Air Force (USAF).
The UAV can capture real-time imagery of the battlefield and transfer the data to the ground control station (GCS) through a line of sight (LOS) communication data link.
The vehicle was deployed to Afghanistan for the operation enduring freedom. It is also known as the Beast of Kandahar.
Flying at an altitude of 50,000ft, the RQ-170 can offer its operators with real-time intelligence data by executing surveillance and reconnaissance operations over a large area.
The RQ-170 was deployed in Pakistan during the maraud on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011. Live coverage of the raid was broadcasted to the US President Barrack Obama by the vehicle.
The sentinel is being operated by 432nd wing of air combat command (ACC) at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, and 30th reconnaissance squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada.
In 2016, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) announced the development of a new unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UAV) called Saeqeh (Thunderbolt), based on a captured American RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone.
Saeqeh drones were produced with technologies obtained from reverse engineering of the RQ-170 Sentinel, according to Iranian military commanders.
Design of the USAF’s RQ-170 Sentinel
The tailless flying wing design of the RQ-170 looks similar to the RQ-3 Darkstar and P-175 Polecat. The low-observable design enables the aircraft to fly on the borders of Iran, China, India and Pakistan for capturing real-time information regarding missile tests, telemetry and multispectral intelligence.
The 27.43m wide and 1.82m high aerial vehicle was designed to execute intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition (ISTAR) and electronic warfare missions over a target area.
About 90% of the aircraft is made up of composite materials to decrease its overall weight.
Development of the UAV
The development of the RQ-170 was started by Skunk Works to meet the stealth UAV demands of the USAF. The RQ (R stands for reconnaissance) designation indicates that the aircraft is unarmed.
The RQ-170 took off for its first flight secretly from Kandahar Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2007. The USAF officially unveiled the operations of RQ-170 in its fleet in December 2009.
A South Korean newspaper, JoongAng Daily, reported in December 2009 that the RQ-170 was flight tested in South Korea to supersede the U-2 aircraft at Osan Air Base for carrying out missions over North Korea.
It was redeployed to Afghanistan with the video capturing feature in August 2010.
Features of the RQ-170 Sentinel
The Sentinel features bat-shaped wings, blended fuselage, pointed nose and tricycle type landing gear.
An electro-optic camera was incorporated beneath the front fuselage section to seize the real-time imagery or videos of the battlefield it is surveying.
A direction satellite communication antenna enables communication between the vehicle and control station.
The RQ-170 can be controlled either manually from the GCS or through autonomous mode. An automatic launch and recovery (ALR) system facilitates the aircraft to land safely when communication with the control station fails.
Sensors, radars and engines of Skunk Works’ RQ-170 Sentinel
Electro-optic and infra-red sensors are incorporated in the upper surface of the RQ-170 wings.
The RQ-170 Sentinel is fitted with an active electronically scanned array radar, synthetic aperture radar and signal intelligence in its belly fairings.
The RQ-170 is powered by a single General Electric TF34 turbofan engine which produces 9,275lbs of thrust.
The TF34 is designed and built by US-based engine manufacturer General Electric Aviation.
It generates high thrust to weight ratio, consumes less fuel and minimises operational cost.
The TF34 boasts dual-stage high-pressure turbine, four-stage low-pressure turbines, annular combustor and 14 stage high-pressure axial flow compressors.
Ground control station
The GCS of the RQ-170 displays the real-time imagery or videos captured by the vehicle’s payload cameras onboard. The data supplied by the vehicle is retrieved, processed, stored and monitored at the control station which was designed and built by Skunk Works.
The GCS tracks, controls and monitors the RQ-170 by transferring commands to the vehicle via LOS SATCOM data link.