Editor’s Note: Started in June of 1943 by Ben Rich and Kelly Johnson, the Skunk Works is responsible for some of the most innovative designs in the history of flight: the U-2 Dragon Lady, the SR-71, F-117A, F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II. Even the RQ-170 Sentinel RPA. Better know as the Advanced Development Programs division of Lockheed-Martin, the Skunk Works has always been on the leading edge of next-generation technology in aerospace.

One of the most secretive military research centers in the world is ready to go public with a plan to boost the reconnaissance capabilities of America’s armed forces.  Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works, located at an Air Force site in the High Desert north of Los Angeles, has figured out how to build a long-endurance drone that can peer deeper into enemy countries than any other unmanned aircraft without having to enter hostile air space, and for a surprisingly low price-tag.

The basic idea is to develop a drone that can carry 5,000 pounds of sensors at an altitude of 70,000 feet, and enable it to stay aloft for 24 hours (longer with aerial refueling).  At that height, the drone would be able to collect surface imagery, eavesdrop on communications, and track fleeting targets at far greater distance than any other remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft.  Lockheed has dubbed the aircraft TR-X, which stands for “tactical reconnaissance experimental.”

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“Tactical” in this context means it doesn’t need to penetrate hostile air space to get the information it is seeking, which would make it a valuable peacetime asset for keeping tabs on adversaries like North Korea and Iran.  It would also be able to collect diverse intelligence about terrorists and insurgents, which could be shared with friendly forces instantaneously via a satellite uplink and various other links.  The drone would have some stealth features to assure enemies don’t realize they are being watched and can’t shoot it down..

Loren Thompson’s original article can be viewed in its entirety right here.
(Graphics courtesy of Lockheed-Martin)

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