PHOTO: RQ-170 half-frontal view has posted the clearest frontal view yet of the RQ-170, courtesy of the latest issue of Combat Aircraft monthly magazine. The US Air Force still refuses to release official photos of the Skunk Works project, so we have to rely on these shots from the aviation paparazzi. This particular shot appeared in the latest Combat Aircraft. More photos are available inside the magazine.

This photo offers the best view I’ve seen of the inlet and the hump (presumably, SATCOM antenna?) on the upper fuselage. It also provides a better perspective on the aircraft’s nose and leading edge. I’m still struggling to identify the aircraft’s true mission based on the photos. There is no visible payload, sensor or weapon, which is not surprising since this is a stealth aircraft.

Some day it would also be nice to know why the US Air Force pushed the RQ-170 Sentinel into production around the same time that it cancelled the competition between the Boeing X-45 and Northrop Grumman X-47 for the joint unmanned combat aircraft systems (J-UCAS) contract.


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12 Responses to PHOTO: RQ-170 half-frontal view

  1. John S. 12 January, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    Two hints:

    1) There is a dark trapezoid on the underside centerline behind the nose landing gear.

    2) There is a very MiG-like fender on the nosewheel, suggesting that the dark trapezoid needs to be protected from any runway debris?

  2. EG 12 January, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    More time for some fun, uniformed speculation!! Could it be the humps have two functions? For your satcoms and as part of the wheel well? not rotating the wheel would free up internal space for payload. Obviously from the angle of the pictures it is hard to tell exactly where the humps reside in relation to the wheel wheels. But let the speculation begin! BTW, has anybody noticed the oleo stroke?

  3. AirShowFan 12 January, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Something about that photo (probably how grainy it is, and the low contrast) reminds me of those “UFO” photos that end up being plates or hubcaps. I think we need Michael Shermer to have a look at this ;]

    Seriously, though, good point about how the RQ-170 came in just as the J-UCASes went out. But is this thing in “production”? Maybe the USAF just wanted one (or some small number) in service to learn more about what it would be like to operate this kind of aircraft, before putting out requirements or an RFP for a more significant number of more optimized or specialized machines.

  4. XBradTC 12 January, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

    John S. notes correctly that there’s a pretty prominent ventral canoe with sensor windows. And good catch on the fender.

    As for the platform’s use, the airframe itself seems pretty unremarkable in this age of stealth. My curiosity is about how it is operated. That is, does it operate “man in the loop” like the Predator and Reaper, or is it autonomous like the RQ-4? If it is autonomous, just how flexible and intelligent is it?

    I’ll leave speculation as to what missions it is performing to others, except to say it is pretty obvious that some level of operational testing is probably going on.

  5. AirShowFan 13 January, 2010 at 12:11 am #

    “Does it operate ‘man in the loop’ like the Predator and Reaper, or is it autonomous like the RQ-4?”

    It’s not that black-and-white. Most UAVs operate on a spectrum of autonomous-ness. For most UAVs, during most of the flight (i.e. other than during takeoff and landing), you have someone pretty much clicking at points on a map effectively telling the UAV to “go here, then go here, then go here”. I only know one person who has actually flown UAVs over the middle east, but from what she tells me, this is now my default image of how UAVs operate.

    Yes, I have heard of long RQ-4 and X-45 flights where no human input was sent after a button press just before takeoff (i.e. 100% autonomous), and I know that most medium-to-large UAVs can be flown in real time from a station that looks like a simulator (i.e. 0% autonomous), but my impression (and I’m no expert) is that those are the exception rather than the rule (which is clicking on the map).

  6. nico 13 January, 2010 at 2:16 am #

    I know it is difficult to judge size with only 3 available pictures but it looks a lot bigger and far more “bulky” from this angle than the previous Kandahar shot. Wings seem thicker too. I still think that it has a lot more range than we think. Is the engine inlet the middle hump on top? At first, before John S. comment, I thought the black shape was the engine inlet.

    Nice catch for the wheel fender.:)

  7. ArkadyRenko 13 January, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    Looks like their is a window right behind the nose wheel. The color changes quite a bit, reminds me of the laser sensor from the F-35.

    If the wheel goes to its side to be stowed in the airframe, it probably will have a sensor right behind the wheel.

    As an aside, I think the AF should work heavily towards fully autonomous UAVs, especially their long range models, the MQ-X program for example. I suspect engineers will soon reach a point where UAVs can land just as well as a human, and when that happens, UAVs should be cut loose a little bit more.

  8. Drop Bear 13 January, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    After looking at the pictures available inside the combat aircraft monthly some thing becomes apparent straight away.

    Take a second look at the nose wheel, and you will see to its right is another flap. The magazine clearly shows this flap is about to close over the sensor window as it is moving away and the wheels are almost totally retracted.

    So is it optical windows purely for landing and taking off? and as one friend said a few days ago: “could it be a satellite communications and image intelligence relay for Special Forces in remote areas?”

    It would explain why there appears to be no sensors underwing and two very large overwing humps – best place for any satellite communication antenna.

  9. John S. 13 January, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Take a second look at the nose wheel, and you will see to its right is another flap. The magazine clearly shows this flap is about to close over the sensor window as it is moving away and the wheels are almost totally retracted.

    So is it optical windows purely for landing and taking off?

    It is apparent that the nosewheel retracts to the right, and your second flap opens to accept the wheel portion of the gear. The strut cover is attached to the strut itself.

    This is the very same nosewheel retract arrangement that was on the Northrop XB-35/YB-49 flying wing, except the Northrop nosewheel folded to the left.


  10. eps2inf 13 January, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    Hopefully the video link (air-to-terrestrial or air-to-ground) is encrypted! It’s not going to be too difficult to surreptitiously ascertain the UAV’s mission profile when the video feed is in clear-text.

  11. Zord 14 January, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    It seems to be a LOROP pod, with the axis of the optics parallel to the direction of the flight, but the aperture and with it LOS is perpendicular. Altough ruled out before by many, the room such an equipment requires still leaves open the possibility of an alternative configuration with a weapons bay instead.

  12. Michael 11 March, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    I’ve seen one of these things over the North Sea. It was travelling very slowly so I got a good look.

    It was painted like a NORAD F-16, not like in the photos. There was a large central hump, and two smaller humps which I took to be wheeel bays.

    I got to thinking, did it refuel since leaving Holloman, and if so , where?

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