Surveillance aircraft are military aircraft used for monitoring enemy activity, usually carrying no armament. Most Air Forces around the world lack dedicated surveillance planes, but have the capability of adding reconnaissance cameras to combat and transport aircraft. Several unmanned remotely-controlled reconnaissance aircraft (UAVs) have been developed and deployed. Recently, the UAVs have been seen to offer the possibility of cheaper, more capable fighting machines that can be used without risk to aircrews.
Another type of surveillance aircraft is the electronic surveillance aircraft. Whilst other military aircraft, including photo-reconnaissance aircraft, have been used for that purpose, several countries adapt aircraft for electronic intelligence gathering. The RC-135 Rivet Joint are examples of this military activity, which helps to reduce opportunities for surprise attack or the risks of training exercises being misunderstood by potential enemies.
RC-135 Rivet Joint
The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft supports theater and national level consumers with near real time on-scene intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities.
The aircraft is an extensively modified C-135. The Rivet Joint's modifications are primarily related to its on-board sensor suite, which allows the mission crew to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The mission crew can then forward gathered information in a variety of formats to a wide range of consumers via Rivet Joint's extensive communications suite.
U-2 Dragon Lady
The U-2 Dragon Lady is a high-altitude surveillance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force. Because of its high altitude mission, the pilot must wear a full pressure suit (identical to those worn on space shuttle missions). The aircraft can gather surveillance and signals intelligence in real time and can be deployed anywhere in the world. The U-2 is often described as a glider due to its long, wide, straight wings and flight characteristics. It can carry a variety of sensors and cameras, and is an extremely reliable reconnaissance aircraft. Additionally, the system has been used to track hurricanes, forest fires and other global disasters for the sake of research and tactical responses.
The SR-71 Blackbird is a long-range, supersonic reconnaissance aircraft capable of flying at speeds higher than Mach 3. The aircraft can fly more than 2200 mph (more than three times the speed of sound) and at altitudes of over 85,000 feet. The extreme operating environment in which they fly make the aircraft excellent platforms for conducting research and experiments in a variety of disciplines: aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, thermal protection materials, high-speed and high-temperature instrumentation, atmospheric studies and sonic boom characterization. The SR-71 is one of the fastest and highest flying production aircraft in the world.