This is what flying Ikhana is like, almost. The setup above is a simulator, and includes features that you won’t find in an actual Predator control station, like a wide angle forward view. At Dryden, they experiment with things like this to see how valuable different cameras or data might be to remote pilots. In other words, they’re trying to figure out what displays a drone pilot needs to effectively operate in national airspace.
When flying Ikhana around Dryden, pilots get to use a very low-latency radio connection for direct control using a joystick, just like in a video game. Away from Dryden, Ikhana is communicated with over a satellite connection, and flies autonomously via waypoint control. It’s still possible to use a joystick to control the drone in an emergency, but the 1.5 second latency makes it “basically unflyable.” Pilots practice it anyway, though, just in case there’s an emergency and they need to land the drone by hand.
This particular aircraft was the very first Global Hawk ever made, and had its first flight back in 1998. It’s quite a performer, though, able to cruise at 65,000 feet with a range of about 11,000 nautical miles. Even while based out of Dryden, it has no problem heading into the Atlantic or the Caribbean for extended weather monitoring, coming back home up to 30 hours later.
With a wingspan of 116 feet (that’s longer than a basketball court), the Global Hawk has nearly the same wingspan as a Boeing 737, and it can haul 1,500 pounds of payload, including deployable sensors that it can drop into particularly bad weather. For the last month or so, NASA has been partnering with NOAA’s National Hurricane Center to forecast hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.