I would clarify that the drones I refer to are UAVs that were piloted using a control station. I know many military projects include such capabilities but I want to know how pilots work on such supersonic UAVs and fly at such high speeds. I read that it was an alternative to the high risks of piloting and training a supersonic aircraft pilot, but I'm curious about such projects and how they fly at such high speeds and how they know when they're in control and when do they know that these crafts are out of control.

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    $\begingroup$ There are not any currently public supersonic remotely piloted aircraft $\endgroup$
    – tmptplayer
    Oct 24, 2018 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ The fastest is probably the QF-16. I have no idea about what engineering makes that happen though. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Oct 24, 2018 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ This is great fodder for the drone.se (area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/119178/drone) site proposal. $\endgroup$
    – ifconfig
    Oct 24, 2018 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ This question is a contradiction. Drones are, by very definition, unpiloted $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2018 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @CarloFelicione by definition, yes, but in common usage, most people don't differentiate. I work professionally in the UAV/Drone field and they're generally interchangeable, potentially because all drones nowadays also have the ability to be piloted if need be. $\endgroup$
    – M28
    Oct 25, 2018 at 14:49

1 Answer 1


The question of the "fastest drone" is not entirely answerable, since whatever answer I give, I'm sure the United States military has a secret drone that goes twice the speed that we have no idea about. I will however put forth the Lockheed D-21 as one of the fastest piloted drones. It tops out at 2,500mph, and was used as a high altitude aerial reconnaissance UAV.

Lockheed D-21

On the other hand, one of the workhorses of the US Air Force is the Global Hawk, a surveillance drone that travels at 400mph.

RQ-4 Global Hawk

Regardless of which one you are flying, the speed of communication is the same. Radio transmissions travel close to, or at, the speed of light. That's roughly 670,616,629mph. That's enough to go around the earth more than seven times per second. Due to this, you have near instantaneous feedback from the drones sensors, and near instantaneous control. Yes, things happen faster at 2,500mph, but it is still very controllable.

Beyond the fact that lag is a non-existent problem, take a look at the control stations these guys use.

MQ-9 Reaper Control Station

Due to the fact that they are on the ground which has no meaningful weight limitations, they can equip themselves with a ton of equipment, information, and controls that they would not otherwise have on an aircraft. A few items shown on their screens are sensor feedback for avionics, navigational data, and mission data. With all of these, you really have no human-based excuse for a trained pilot to "lose control" of their aircraft, excluding instances where their transmission may be jammed by a hostile actor. In this situation, the drone has an automatic "Return To Base" function that activates after you have lost control of the drone for a set amount of time.

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    $\begingroup$ To say that "lag is a non-existent problem" is extremely optimistic. Speed of light is only one factor here. For digital video, you can't have a delay less than at least one frame at encoding and another at decoding (and yet another at display), and that's already noticeable. In practice it's multiplies of that. Plus you'll need to re-translate the signal via satellites in many cases, and that also adds some lag. $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Oct 26, 2018 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeus So I've actually had the fortunate opportunity to fly some of these badboys. From the information I was given, the delay was well below a single second, and it seemed like even less. I meant "non-existent", in that it does not have any effect on the operation of the aircraft. Such a small delay would only affect operation in very close quarters dogfighting, which requires lightning like reflexes. And I think it's fairly safe to say that there's no interest in dogfighting drones, as the modern age has come to rely more on missiles and engagements from a distance. $\endgroup$
    – M28
    Oct 26, 2018 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Is Lockheed D-21 actually "piloted"? I am under impression that it just flies pre-programmed path on its own. $\endgroup$
    – h22
    Oct 26, 2018 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ Well, for 'normal' airplanes a 0.1 s delay is considered significant and can cause pilot-induced oscillations in certain cases. 0.2 s is really bad and makes flying difficult (when precise control is needed). Did you fly it as a pilot-in-the-loop, with full control like a normal airplane, including landings? My understanding of such systems was that the pilot only provides 'guidance' (even if using a traditional stick), while the control system (autopilot) closes the inner loop. $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Oct 29, 2018 at 4:12

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