The U.S. Air Force is shipping its first three Gorgon Stare pods to Afghanistan in the next few months. The half ton pods will be carried on one of the wing hard points of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Each pod contains nine cameras (five day and four night/infrared). Aside from enabling nine camera operators to work from one UAV, the camera system also has software to enable covering a larger area, by having the cameras cover adjacent areas. The cameras can also look at the same area, from slightly different angles, and produce 3-D images. Two or more cameras can be used over the same area, at different resolution to, for example, search for a specific individual (who is on the Hellfire delivery list), and have another camera focus in on suspect individuals to get a positive ID.
The system software also allows for rapidly shifting from one area to another, in response to requests from the ground. Since the RQ-9 operates at higher altitudes (7,000 meters or more), the cameras can zero in on particular patches of ground, over a wide area.
The only problem with this is that, for now, there aren't enough Reapers to go around. Next year, the U.S. Air Force will buy its last MQ-1 Predator UAV, and one of the main reasons for that is the inability to carry the Gorgon Stare pod. From now on, the MQ-9 Reaper will be the primary medium UAV for the air force. The main reason is payload capacity. The Predator can only carry 450 pounds (204 kilograms) internally (and 300 pounds externally), compared to 800 pounds (364 kilograms) internally and 3,000 pounds (1.36 tons) externally for the Reaper. The Reaper can also fly faster (cruise speed of 300 kilometers an hour, versus 160 for the Reaper). Max takeoff weight for the Predator is one ton, compared to 4.7 tons for the Reaper.
The air force currently owns 137 MQ-1s and 35 MQ-9s. Another 70 MQ-1s are on order, and nearly as many MQ-9s. In a few years, the air force will have more Reapers than Predators. Last year, these UAVs flew about 151,000 hours over Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So far in this year (which ended on September 30) they have flown over 165,000 hours. It took 12 years of service (1995-2007, including development) for the MQ-1 Predator to reach the first 250,000 hours. It took another two years (2007-2009) to fly an additional 250,000 hours (500,000 total). The air force anticipates only 13 months to reach another 250,000 hour milestone (around Spring 2010).