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Look! In the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a flying beer keg?

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RQ-16A T-Hawk

This T-Hawk was donated to the National Air and Space Museum by the Honeywell International Corporation for use in the Time and Navigation exhibition, scheduled to open in March of 2013.

Well, not exactly, but that is the nickname some have given to the RQ-16 T-Hawk (short for Tarantula Hawk, a wasp that preys on the large spiders).  The T-Hawk micro air vehicle (MAV) is a small unmanned aircraft that has been making a name for itself in both military and civilian circles since it was developed by Honeywell International Corporation starting in 2003.  Weighing only about 20 pounds, the T-hawk relies on a small gasoline-powered engine (like a lawn-mower) and a ducted fan to allow it to take off and land vertically (like a helicopter), fly up to 46 miles per hour for about 50 minutes, and reach heights of 10,000 feet!  All this flying technology is used to carry some very high-tech cameras, including regular daytime cameras, as well as infrared cameras.    But wait, there’s more!  It is also programmable to use pre-set GPS coordinates to fly autonomously through an area without any need for a manual control.  These unique characteristics have allowed the T-Hawk to be used to “hover-and-stare” both on and off the battlefield.

RQ-16A T-Hawk

The RQ-16A T-Hawk propels itself from the ground, beginning a demonstration highlighting some of its abilities at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

Originally developed at the request of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the T-Hawk found a place amongst ground troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Army issued some of the highly mobile units, which are small enough to be carried by a soldier in a backpack, to military units in Iraq where they were sent ahead of a convoy or group of soldiers to scout.  With real-time video sent with the T-Hawk’s cameras, field commanders can have a bird’s-eye view of an area before troops arrive to look out for any traps or ambushes along the way.  The US Navy has also made use of the T-Hawk and assigned them to explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) units in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  The T-Hawk can take off quickly and hover over a suspicious-looking area or item to give EOD technicians a close-up view without putting them in harm’s way.  The “hover-and-stare” ability has proven invaluable to spotting road side bombs before US troops arrive in an area.

The T-Hawk, however, is not just useful to those in the military.  Recently, the Miami-Dade Police Department purchased a T-Hawk to assist with situations such as standoffs with armed suspects.  More importantly, the T-Hawk was used to help during the nuclear crisis Japan faced in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country on March 11, 2011.  Using the T-Hawk, US Department of Defense personnel at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were able to get the first detailed video of the exterior of damaged reactor vessels in an environment that was too radioactive for humans.

Fukushima Daiichi

This photo was taken by a T-Hawk over the ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shortly after the plant suffered a partial meltdown following an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The T-Hawk provided authorities with some of the first detailed images of the plant from areas which were too dangerous for humans.

So why is the T-Hawk so important to the National Air and Space Museum?  Well, besides its awesome capabilities, and its similarity to a flying WALL-E, it will also be seen in an upcoming exhibition at the Museum.  The gallery, called Time and Navigation is set to open in March of 2013, and will showcase the importance of time-keeping to navigation.  The T-Hawk has recently arrived at the Museum as part of the permanent collection and will be on display in a section of the exhibit discussing the importance of GPS to the military.  Stop by and see it then!

Thomas Paone is a museum specialist at the National Air and Space Museum.

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