QF4 drone

BAE Systems reaches QF-4 drone milestone

It's a bit bigger – and noisier – than your average radio-controlled aircraft, but then this QF-4 is essentially a Phantom jet fighter, rigged for remote control.

It is also the 300th of its kind. BAE Systems has just reached that milestone 16 years into its QF-4 programme, which converts old jets into full-size unmanned drones for the US Air Force to use as flying targets for weapons testing and aircraft training.

Each QF-4 starts out as a decommissioned F-4 fighter. It then spends around six months in a BAE hanger in in Mojave, California, where around 100 staff work on the complex conversion process.

Depending on each old aircraft's condition, it may need electrical and mechanical engineering work and various types of structural alterations, as well as systems engineering and integration for the remote control gear, said BAE.

The resulting drone is no aerial punchbag – it is equipped with electronic and infrared countermeasures to properly challenge fighters and weapons flown and fired against it. 

The QF-4 can be flown remotely by computer or manually, or with a safety pilot onboard to monitor its performance. According to the USAF, the aircraft is flown unmanned only over water, and when unmanned it is fitted with an explosive device to destroy it if it goes out of control. As a safety precaution, a chase plane trails the drone during critical periods of flight.

BAE said it has 14 more QF-4s scheduled for delivery to the USAF's Aerial Targets Squadron by the middle of 2013.

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