From the Washington Post:
Countless people tuned in to watch America’s next manned spacecraft return to Earth — live, in real-time, over the Internet! — and from an incredible bird’s-eye angle.
All of that was made possible by NASA’s Predator drone. Yes, since 2006 NASA has had its own unmanned aircraft, modified to do things like monitor wildfires and take measurements of the atmosphere. It doesn’t shoot Hellfire missiles, but the drone, named “Ikhana,” can fly as high as an airliner at cruising altitude and can carry more than 2,400 pounds of science gear on its wings and in its internal bay.
Ikhana — which in Choctaw — means “intelligent, conscious or aware,” according to NASA, is the same MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle that the U.S. military uses. NASA helped fund the development of the Predator-B, as it’s also known, in hopes that it could be used for research. According to the space agency, Ikhana has a wingspan of 66 feet and measures 36 feet in length. And it’s equipped with ADS-B, a next-generation aircraft tracking technology that you may remember from our coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight.
NASA dispatched Ikhana this week to watch as the Orion spacecraft descended from orbit. Everything in the mission proceeded smoothly — including the drone footage stream. Ikhana offers a taste of what’s possible with unmanned aircraft in the commercial sector, although with the Federal Aviation Administration still dragging its feet on crucial regulations; drone industry officials aren’t optimistic about being able to fly their own missions anytime soon.