Google may be developing driverless robot cars, but Boeing already has a small fleet a fighter jets that do not require a human pilot. These retired and refurbished QF-16s were turned into special drone craft for use by the US Air Force. But before anyone gets nervous, it should be noted that these specialized drones are strictly flying targets that are meant to assist with aerial combat training.
The test flight of one of the QF-16s took place last week and included an auto-take off and landing as well as an array of aerial maneuvers. The highlights of this test flight were a barrel roll while pulling 7 G’s, climbing to an altitude of 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) and accelerating to a speed of Mach 1.47. All the while, the plane was controlled by two Air Force test pilots on the ground.
Incorporating the latest in unmanned controls, these fighter jets will act as more realistic targets than the older generation of QF-4 unmanned aircraft – which are refurbished F-4 Phantoms. Whereas these Vietnam-era fighter craft are incapable of keeping up with modern designs, F-16s are capable of supersonic speeds and 9-G performance, which should help hone pilots for real-world combat missions.
While this is in many ways is just an upgrade on existing methods, it also represents a big step forward in terms of automation and drone warfare. With greater refinements in the technology and a more effective range, it may be possible to remotely pilot any and all combat aircraft in the not-too-distant future. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may come to mean all aircraft, and not just Reapers and Predators (pictured above).
And of course, Boeing has produced a video of the QF-16s test flight. Enjoy!