Since taking to the skies in 1998, the Global Hawk drone has developed a chilling reputation. It may not drop bombs, but Northrop Grumman’s surveillance UAV plays a role in the American military’s ongoing, largely obfuscated campaign of drone strikes in the Middle East.
But the very first Global Hawk to come off the production line has returned to civilian life—if you can call flying for NASA civilian—and has since been joined by others that NASA acquires, lightly used, from the Air Force. Now, they fly for science.
Despite the shared “drone” moniker, the Global Hawk has little in common with the puny quadcopters that can stay aloft for a few minutes at a time. With the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and a Rolls-Royce jet engine on its back, it can roam the thinnest sections of the Earths atmosphere for 30 hours at a time, covering 12,000 miles before touching land.
All the skills that make it ideal for military surveillance also make it fit for civilian missions. NASA’s “science birds” fly high over vicious hurricanes, measure airborne pollutants, and help researchers figure out if its going to be an El Nio year. We got a peek under the skin of one of the drones when it was in for updates—take a look in the video above.