Surveillance aircraft
A surveillance aircraft is an aircraft
An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air, or, in general, the atmosphere of a planet. An aircraft counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines.Although...

 used for surveillance
Surveillance is the monitoring of the behavior, activities, or other changing information, usually of people. It is sometimes done in a surreptitious manner...

 — collecting information over time. They are operated by military forces and other government agencies in roles such as intelligence gathering, battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, observation
Air Observation Post
An Air Observation Post is a British military aircraft used for active or passive observation of artillery actions.-History:Air Observation Post is the term used by the Royal Air Force and other services of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth air forces for an aeroplane or helicopter used in the...

 (e.g. artillery spotting), border patrol and fishery
Generally, a fishery is an entity engaged in raising or harvesting fish which is determined by some authority to be a fishery. According to the FAO, a fishery is typically defined in terms of the "people involved, species or type of fish, area of water or seabed, method of fishing, class of boats,...

 protection. This article concentrates on aircraft used in those roles, rather than for traffic monitoring, law enforcement and similar activities.

Surveillance aircraft usually carry no armament, or only limited defensive armament. A surveillance aircraft does not necessarily require high-performance capability or stealth
Stealth aircraft
Stealth aircraft are aircraft that use stealth technology to avoid detection by employing a combination of features to interfere with radar as well as reduce visibility in the infrared, visual, audio, and radio frequency spectrum. Development of stealth technology likely began in Germany during...

 characteristics. It may be a modified civilian aircraft. Surveillance aircraft have also included moored balloon
Moored balloon
A moored balloon is an inflated fabric structure, often shaped like an airship and usually filled with helium, that is restrained by a cable attached to the ground or a vehicle. Moored balloons differ from airships and free balloons in that it is not free-flying.Moored balloons are sometimes...

s (e.g. TARS
Tethered Aerostat Radar System
The Tethered Aerostat Radar System is an American low-level surveillance system that uses aerostats as radar platforms. Another system of this kind is the EL/M-2083.- System :...

) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).


The terms “surveillance” and “reconnaissance” have sometimes been used interchangeably, but, in the military context, a distinction can be drawn between surveillance which monitors a changing situation in real time and reconnaisance which captures a static picture for analysis.

Surveillance is sometimes grouped with Intelligence, Target acquisition
Target Acquisition
In the military, target acquisition denotes any process that provides detailed information about enemy forces and locates them with sufficient accuracy to permit continued monitoring or attacking it....

 and Reconnaissance
Reconnaissance is the military term for exploring beyond the area occupied by friendly forces to gain information about enemy forces or features of the environment....

 under the title ISTAR
ISTAR stands for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance. In its macroscopic sense, ISTAR is a practice that links several battlefield functions together to assist a combat force in employing its sensors and managing the information they gather.Information is collected on...


Observation was the term used for surveillance when the main sensor was the human eye.

Pre World War I

In 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus
Battle of Fleurus (1794)
In the Battle of Fleurus on 26 June 1794, the army of the First French Republic under General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan faced the Coalition Army commanded by Prince Josias of Coburg in the most decisive battle of the Flanders Campaign in the Low Countries during the French Revolutionary Wars...

, the French Aerostatic Corps
French Aerostatic Corps
The French Aerostatic Corps or Company of Aeronauts was the world's first air force, founded in 1794 to use balloons, primarily for reconnaissance.-Experimentation:...

 balloon L'Entreprenant remained afloat for nine hours. French officers used the balloon to observe the movements of the Austrian Army, dropping notes to the ground for collection by the French Army, and also signalled messages using semaphore
A semaphore telegraph, optical telegraph, shutter telegraph chain, Chappe telegraph, or Napoleonic semaphore is a system of conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting shutters, also known as blades or paddles. Information is encoded by the position of the...


World War I

One of the first aircraft used for surveillance was the Rumpler Taube
Rumpler Taube
The Etrich Taube, also known by the names of the various manufacturers who build versions of the type, such as the Rumpler Taube, was a pre-World War I monoplane aircraft. It was the first mass-produced military plane in Germany...

 during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, when aviators like Fred Zinn
Fred Zinn
Friedrich Wilhelm "Fred" Zinn was a volunteer American aviator who flew with French Armée de l'Air forces in World War I and an early pioneer of aerial photography for wartime reconnaissance and Military intelligence....

 evolved entirely new methods of reconnaissance and photography. The translucent wings of the plane made it very difficult for ground based observers to detect a Taube at an altitude above 400 m. The French also called this plane "the Invisible Aircraft", and it is sometimes also referred to as the "world's very first stealth plane". German Taube aircraft were able to detect the advancing Russian army during the Battle of Tannenberg
Battle of Tannenberg (1914)
The Battle of Tannenberg was an engagement between the Russian Empire and the German Empire in the first days of World War I. It was fought by the Russian First and Second Armies against the German Eighth Army between 23 August and 30 August 1914. The battle resulted in the almost complete...


World War II and later

During World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, light aircraft
Light aircraft
A light aircraft is an aircraft that has a maximum gross take-off weight of or less.Many aircraft used commercially for freight, sightseeing, photography and scheduled flights are light aircraft.Examples of light aircraft include:...

 such as the British Auster
Taylorcraft Auster
The Taylorcraft Auster was a British military liaison and observation aircraft produced by the Taylorcraft Aeroplanes Limited company during the Second World War.-Design and development:...

 were used as air observation post
Observation post
An observation post, temporary or fixed, is a position from which soldiers can watch enemy movements, to warn of approaching soldiers , or to direct artillery fire...

s. Officers from the British Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

 were trained as pilots to fly AOP
Air Observation Post
An Air Observation Post is a British military aircraft used for active or passive observation of artillery actions.-History:Air Observation Post is the term used by the Royal Air Force and other services of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth air forces for an aeroplane or helicopter used in the...

 aircraft for artillery spotting.
The air observation role was generally taken over by light observation helicopters, such as the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, from the mid 1960s.

Maritime patrol

Maritime patrol aircraft are typically large, slow machines capable of flying continuously for many hours, with a wide range of sensors. Such aircraft include the Hawker-Siddeley Nimrod, the Breguet Atlantique
Breguet Atlantique
The Breguet Br.1150 Atlantic is a long-range reconnaissance aircraft, primarily designed for use over the sea. It is used in several NATO countries as a reconnaissance and patrol aircraft as well as anti-submarine aircraft. The Atlantic is also capable of carrying air-to-ground missiles...

, the Tupolev Tu-95
Tupolev Tu-95
The Tupolev Tu-95 is a large, four-engine turboprop-powered strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the Tu-95 entered service with the former Soviet Union in 1956 and is expected to serve the Russian Air Force until at least 2040...

, the Lockheed P-2 Neptune
P-2 Neptune
The Lockheed P-2 Neptune was a Maritime patrol and ASW aircraft. It was developed for the United States Navy by Lockheed to replace the Lockheed PV-1 Ventura and PV-2 Harpoon, and being replaced in turn with the Lockheed P-3 Orion...

 and the Lockheed P-3 Orion
P-3 Orion
The Lockheed P-3 Orion is a four-engine turboprop anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft developed for the United States Navy and introduced in the 1960s. Lockheed based it on the L-188 Electra commercial airliner. The aircraft is easily recognizable by its distinctive tail stinger or...


Law enforcement

Predator UAVs have been used by the U.S. for border patrol
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is a federal law enforcement agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security charged with regulating and facilitating international trade, collecting import duties, and enforcing U.S. regulations, including trade, customs and immigration. CBP is the...


Current use

Unmanned aerial vehicle
An unmanned aerial vehicle , also known as a unmanned aircraft system , remotely piloted aircraft or unmanned aircraft, is a machine which functions either by the remote control of a navigator or pilot or autonomously, that is, as a self-directing entity...

 surveillance aircraft have been deployed or are under development in many countries, including Israel, the UK, the United States, China, South Africa, Pakistan and India.

Most air forces around the world lack dedicated surveillance planes.

Several countries adapt aircraft for electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering. The Beech RC-12 Super King Air
C-12 Huron
The C-12 Huron is the military designation for a series of twin-engine turboprop aircraft based on the Beechcraft Super King Air and Beechcraft 1900. C-12 variants are used by the United States Air Force, United States Army, United States Navy and United States Marine Corps...

 and Boeing
The Boeing Company is an American multinational aerospace and defense corporation, founded in 1916 by William E. Boeing in Seattle, Washington. Boeing has expanded over the years, merging with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Boeing Corporate headquarters has been in Chicago, Illinois since 2001...

 RC-135 Rivet Joint are examples of this military activity.

External links

  • U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission: "Military Use of Balloons During the Napoleonic Era". Accessed April 1, 2007.
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