I ask this question in the context of people flying their drones much higher than the usual hobby planes. Satellite based GPS navigated Autopilots using photogrammetry and/ or military drones.

What kind of cameras do first-person-view (FPV) pilots use and mount onboard to control the plane, and not for any sensors to collect data/ perform other tasks?


The Bottom Line Up Front

Infrared and visual video cameras aid in navigation of larger class UAVs and are helpful for safety but do not satisfy the legal requirements for unmanned aircraft to operate in US/international airspace. Instead, the use of onboard navigation systems like GPS, combined with air traffic control services and common flight safety rules allow safe navigation of high and medium altitude UAVs.

What UAVs Operate at High Altitude?

Northrop Grumman's "RQ-4" variants (e.g. USAF RQ-4B Global Hawk, US Navy MQ-4C Triton, NATO RQ-4D Phoenix) are the only widely recognized UAVs flown at high altitudes (FL500-600). The RQ-4 is also the largest UAV with a wingspan greater than a Boeing 757. All other UAVs, including the MQ-9 Reaper, operate at medium or low altitudes.

UAV Ramp

How Does the RQ-4 Navigate?

The RQ-4 has sophisticated, GPS & gyro-enabled navigation computers that ensure it always knows where it is and where it is going. To avoid airborne hazards like other aircraft or bad weather, it follows the same instrument flight 'rules of the road' that manned aircraft rely on when flying at night or in the clouds. Specifically, air traffic controllers use radar to track aircraft from the ground and alert the pilots if they see an unsafe situation on their radar screens. These instances are rare, however, because everyone follows their flight plan and obeys air traffic controllers' instructions in order to remain safely separated in the air--even remotely piloted aircraft.

Does the RQ-4 Have Any Cameras Used to Aid in its Control?

Yes. As a backup to air traffic control clearances to taxi, takeoff, and land, the RQ-4 has a forward-facing infrared video camera on the nose of the airplane. Although it is not legally required to have this camera, it is used only as a backup for the pilot to ensure the runway is clear of obstacles during taxi and prior to landing on the runway. Radio transmission of the video camera signal is via line-of-sight antennas only (not over satellites), so therefore it is limited only to the airfield/runway environment where the ground control station is located and is not used while away from the airfield during climb, cruise, or descent.

Nose Camera

Note there are two small windows in the pressurized camera compartment: One upper window for the video camera lens and the lower window used to display the pressure dial for the camera compartment.

What About Medium/Low Altitude UAVs?

Medium altitude UAVs like the MQ-9 predator carry a variety of infrared (day/night) and electro-optical (day only) full motion video cameras used primarily for their mission rather than for navigation. Unlike the high-altitude RQ-4, they operate at the same altitude levels as commercial air traffic. They can follow the same instrument flight 'rules of the road' that manned aircraft do when flying at night or in the clouds. Often, their mission requires them to fly in areas where following these rules aren't required by all aircraft. In this type of airspace, pilots of smaller aircraft like gliders and crop-dusters don't have the radios to communicate to air traffic control and count on other aircraft to 'see-and-avoid' them instead. The MQ-9 does not have a pilot onboard to look out the window and avoid these 'visual flight only' aircraft, so it needs other solutions to ensure safe navigation.

The MQ-9 does have a powerful ball-mounted, full-motion video camera onboard. However, the USA's Federal Aviation Administration and the worldwide International Civil Aviation Organization has not deemed the use of this camera as a sufficient substitute for the see-and-avoid requirement. Therefore, despite the MQ-9's robust visual/infrared camera system, it must rely on other methods of deconfliction like temporary/military restricted airspace, special clearances, and even chase airplanes, in order to conduct its training in the US and its missions overseas. The same challenges exist with smaller, low-altitude military unmanned aerial systems and commercially operated drones.

UAV Altitudes

Are Cameras Any Good For Long Range Navigation?

That depends on what you consider long range. Navigation using cameras, especially to avoid other aircraft, requires low-latency. It does little good to see a rogue aircraft filling your windscreen if, by the time you see it on the screen, the plane has already crashed into your UAV. This usually isn't a problem for FPV hobbyists because they have a line of sight video signal, directly from the RC aircraft, that feels instantaneous to the pilot wearing FPV goggles. On the other hand, truly long ranges require operation beyond line of sight, relying on satellites to pass information to/from the aircraft. This extra architecture causes video latency, sometimes up to multiple seconds, making it nearly impossible to visually react to a time-critical safety event.

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A Better Alternative to Cameras

In addition to the video latency problem, video cameras on medium/high altitude UAVs are specialized to focus on small targets at long range--not scanning the skies for unidentified aircraft. Imagine trying to spot a fly buzzing around you while looking through a toilet paper tube. An additional, wide-angle navigation camera/lens could be carried on the aircraft but it would not be worth the additional cost, weight, space, and power consumption. Instead, long-range aircraft like the RQ-4 and MQ-9 rely on a framework of aircraft regulations, ground-based air traffic control, and segregated airspace to safely navigate.

Note: This response was drafted from scratch, solely to answer Rajath's question about cameras on high altitude UAVs. Thanks in advance for your feedback.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE! Awesome first answer! $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Jan 19 '20 at 17:15

I'll mention two of my favorites.

MQ-9 Reaper MQ-9 Reaper The Reaper has the "Multi Spectral Targeting System", which is an array of visual cameras and sensors - this includes an infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, and an image-intensified TV camera, each of which can be used independently or combined to provide one video stream. Specific details are classified, but the ARGUS system has been equipped to some drones, and that system itself displays 1.8 billion pixels - that's made up of 350+ 5 Megapixel cameras.

RQ-4 Global Hawk RQ-4 Global Hawk The Globalhawk is not so much a weapons platform, as it is a sensor, targeting, and surveillance platform. Details are again classified, but it is known to have an incredibly powerful camera of resolution comparable to the ARGUS pod system. It is even being tested with the camera system from the U-2 spyplane.

"First Person" or "Cockpit Camera"

Regarding the cameras actually used for flying (not surveillance), both aircraft come equipped with a built-in front facing color camera. This is a much lower resolution, but still of high quality, and is primarily used for landing, takeoff, ground operations, and low flight. There is not much need for this camera view when in the air, as you'll either see white or blue! In the below image of a MQ-9 Reaper control station, you can see the pilots having the front-facing screen pulled up. It's important to note that similar to a hobbyist, they also have task based GPS navigation. The pilots flip it to autopilot once they're airborne, and typically manually control it when you're at your area of operations.

MQ-9 Reaper Control Station

  • $\begingroup$ I'll also mention that I quite honestly chose that particular picture of the Global Hawk because the guy looks like he's having a blast on the tug! $\endgroup$
    – M28
    Oct 26 '18 at 20:04

The Predator drone has an array of optics for various regimes of flight (there is no citation on wiki for this so take it at face value):

The aircraft is equipped with the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System, a color nose camera (generally used by the pilot for flight control), a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture thermographic camera (for low light/night). Previously, Predators were equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze, but lack of use validated its removal to reduce weight and conserve fuel. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produced still frame radar images.

The Predator also has a Raytheon built Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS).


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