Before the launch of a top-secret spy satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, a fleet of small drones will be doing some spying of their own. The Vandenberg crew will be using the drones to scan the launch safety zone before the liftoff, which has been delayed several times and now is scheduled to take place late on April 3, 2012. The drones will be looking for intruders, including those who might be unaware of the pending launch or seeking a good vantage point from which to watch.
The 21-story rocket is set to lift a satellite—classified as a "national security payload," according to Vandenberg officials—into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. The agency is in charge of designing, building, launching and maintaining nation's spy satellites.
The Air Force has found that the 5-pound Raven drone, which resembles a hobby aircraft, is far better suited to do a quick survey of the nearly 100,000-acre base than trucks or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Not only is the area large, much of it is covered by thick brush and unfriendly landscapes.
Now security personnel simply grab a Raven drone by its fuselage and then toss it into the sky like a football, much as hobbyists fly airborne toys on the weekend. The drone is equipped with an electro-optical color camera. For night missions, it has an infrared camera. If drone crew members spot something of concern, they can report it to ground security patrols.