A Drone Field Guide

Unmanned aerial vehicles are filling the skies both in war zones and at home. Get to know them.
By: /
May 31, 2012

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are nothing new. According to Peter Singer, robot technology can be traced back to the 18th century, when French artist and inventor Jacques de Vaucanson invented a mechanical duck capable of eating, drinking, preening, and defecating on its own. Further strides were made during the First World War and Second World War with the invention of remote-controlled land torpedoes and cruise missiles.

Over the past 10 years, however, U.S. spending on dozens of drone-related projects has increased exponentially, from US$350 million in 2001 to $4.1 billion in 2011. According to a recent study by the Teal Group Corporation, a team of aerospace and defence analysts, this trend is likely to continue as annual worldwide spending on drone technology balloons to $11.4 billion by the end of the decade.

The following provides a glimpse of the broad spectrum of present and future drone designs and capabilities.

Deadly hunter-killer drones

General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator drone (pictured) debuted during the mid-1990s, when it was deployed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions over the Balkans. Today, the Predator and its bigger, more powerful variant, the MQ-9 Reaper, are the U.S.’s weapons of choice in the War on Terror. Their powerful sensors and loiter endurance of up to 40 hours enable the U.S military and CIA to discretely take high-quality pictures and live-streaming videos, intercept cellphone conversations, and drop laser-guided missiles on enemy targets from five (Predator) to 10 (Reaper) miles above the ground.

According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S.’s growing fleet of hunter-killers has carried out an estimated 272 drone strikes in Pakistan alone under the Obama administration (compared to 52 under George W. Bush). An unknown number have also been authorized in Yemen and Somalia. While the legality and long-term effectiveness of drone strikes remain controversial, drone strikes have proven successful in eliminating many of al-Qaeda’s senior commanders – including its second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was killed by a drone strike in northern Pakistan – and weakening its operational core.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection have also started using unarmed Predators and Reapers to patrol the northern and southern borders of the U.S. for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.


Tactical military drones

A congressional report released in January 2012 reveals that more than one-third – or 7,494 – of U.S. military aircraft are now unmanned. The most prolific drone is AeroVironment’s RQ-11 Raven (pictured) – there are approximately 5,346 of these aircraft.

The US$56,000 hand-launched, battery-powered drone weighs 4.2 lbs. and can fly at line-of-sight ranges of up to 10 kilometres for 60 to 90 minutes at a time. Equipped with colour video and infrared cameras, soldiers on the ground use Ravens to patrol bases and convoys, explore unfamiliar territory, spot snipers and roadside bombs, and conduct other low-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance missions before they enter potentially dangerous situations.

The next generation of Ravens, currently being developed by AeroVironment and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), will have both autonomous flight and precision strike capabilities.

Autonomous stealth fighter drones

In December 2011, citizens of Cowley County, Kan., spotted what appeared to be a 30-foot wide flying saucer travelling down U.S. Highway 77 on the back of a flatbed lorry. It was soon revealed that the alien cargo was the wingless fuselage of Northrop Grumman’s most advanced stealth combat drone – the X-47B (pictured).

The X-47B program, which has cost an estimated US$813 million and consists of two nearly identical unmanned aircraft, is part of the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program. The computer-controlled X-47B will be capable of taking off from, and landing on, the deck of an aircraft carrier, refuelling itself in flight, and conducting pre-programmed missions using GPS navigation, all without a pilot either in cockpit or on the ground. The X-47B will be equipped with numerous sensors for high surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and will have two weapons bays that together carry up to 4,500 lbs. 


Law-enforcement drones

As the sun rose over Texas one morning in 2009, a man with a stockpile of illegal drugs and weapons barricaded himself inside his Austin home. Warrant in hand, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s SWAT team prepared to storm the house and execute a search. Before doing so, however, they wanted to conduct an aerial sweep of the property to ensure (as the Washington Post put it) that there were no “unseen dangers.” Fearing the suspect could shoot down a black helicopter, the team instead launched a small drone.

Law-enforcement drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes with varying capabilities. Draganflyer Innovations’ battery-powered Draganflyer X6 (pictured), for example, costs between US$33,000 and $41,000, weighs 3.5 lbs., flies up to 30 mph for 20 minutes, and can be equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors. Vanguard Defense’s $300,000 MK-II ShadowHawk, meanwhile, weighs 50 lbs., flies up to 55 mph for between 45 minutes and 3.2 hours (depending on its engine), and can be equipped with high-resolution cameras, infrared sensors, and non-lethal weapons.

Law-enforcement drones are inexpensive to operate and portable enough to be deployed within minutes. Among other uses, they can aid law-enforcement officers in traffic reconstruction and analysis, homicide and narcotics investigations, search and rescue operations, surveillance, and SWAT situations.


Civilian drones

Real-estate agents have used drones to take aerial photographs of properties. Search-and-rescue volunteers have used them to locate missing persons. Journalists have used them to document natural disasters and protests. A hobbyist even used one to capture evidence of pollution from a Dallas meat-packing plant. These are among the many individuals, groups, and organizations acquiring drone technology.

Civilian drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes – from ready-to-fly models like the US$300 smart-phone-controlled Parrot AR drone (pictured) to do-it-yourself models being developed by UAV enthusiasts that cost anywhere from $15 to thousands of dollars. Today, civilians are legally permitted to use drones only for recreational purposes. A law signed by President Barack Obama in February, however, requires the Federal Aviation Administration to develop new regulations that will safely integrate commercial drones into U.S. airways by 2015.

High-altitude, long-endurance drones

In July 2011, the solar-powered Zephyr drone (pictured) broke international aviation endurance records when it stayed aloft for 336 hours and 22 minutes, or 14 days, without refuelling. Developed by QinetiQ, a British defence contractor, the hand-launched drone weighs less than 100 lbs. and has a wingspan of 75 ft. During the day, paper-thin solar panels covering the drone’s wings soak up energy from the sun, allowing it to climb as high as 60,000 ft. At night, the drone sinks to about 40,000 ft. as it uses energy reserved in its lithium-sulphur batteries to stay aloft. Meanwhile, its high-resolution cameras can watch an area 600 miles in diameter while delivering live images back to Earth for one-tenth of what it costs to operate other medium- to high-altitude drones, and one-hundredth of what it costs to keep a satellite in orbit. QinetiQ says militaries can use the Zephyr to conduct surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications missions, and that civilians can use it for stratospheric exploration, weather monitoring, and research.

Boeing secured a US$89-million DARPA contract in September 2010 to develop a similar solar-powered drone – the SolarEagle – that will be capable of flying up to 60,000 ft. for five years straight. It is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2014.


Bio-inspired drones

DARPA-funded researchers across the U.S. are looking to mother nature as inspiration for the next generation of drone technology. Researchers are studying, among others facets of the animal kingdom, 1) bug eyes and bat ears in order to develop nano-drones capable of detecting objects in their flight path, 2) bird wings to develop nano-drones that can detect gusts of wind and adjust their stability before they blow away, and 3) the sensitive hairs of honeybees in order to develop drones that can sense traces of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons or detect landmines and roadside bombs.

AeroVironment, for example, has spent at least US$4 million over the past five years developing a battery-operated, remote-controlled drone that mimics the look and flight pattern of the hummingbird. The Nano Hummingbird (pictured) has a wingspan of 6.5 inches, weighs less than an AA battery, carries a video camera, and can either hover or fly in all directions at a speed of up to 11 mph for eight minutes. While still a prototype, its small size will enable it to fly discretely through open windows or sit on power lines while recording real-time video for surveillance and reconnaissance missions in warzones or other complex environments.

Drones that swarm

In early 2012, robotics researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP lab made headlines when they released footage of their new “nano quadrotors” (pictured). The video shows one nano quadrotor doing flips and another stabilizing itself after being tossed into the air. It also shows a network of 20 nano quadrotors arranging themselves and flying in synchronized formations, including a figure-eight pattern. Each nano quadrotor is self-sensing and therefore capable of autonomously detecting and avoiding obstacles in its flight path. The goal is to combine bio-inspired drones with swarm technology to create a system of vehicles capable of operating in potentially hostile environments – like disaster areas and warzones – with little or no direct human supervision.

Larger drones can also be incorporated into swarm networks. In July 2011, for example, Boeing used two of its ScanEagle drones in a mock surveillance and reconnaissance swarm over eastern Oregon. The portable, catapult-launched drones – which have a wingspan of 10.2 ft., weigh nearly 40 lbs., and can fly as high as 16,000 ft. at 80 mph for 20 hours – simultaneously searched a test area and mapped terrain while communicating with each other, and with operators on the ground. This will improve efficiency by preventing drones from performing overlapping missions. Likewise, drone swarms will allow multiple drones to track a target as he or she moves in and out of a drone’s scan area, thus providing operators with better situational awareness.


Panoptic drones

In 2009, U.S. Air Force drones over Iraq and Afghanistan collected 24 years’ worth of continuous video footage. Starting this spring, the U.S. Army’s newest unmanned spycraft will collect more than three times that amount – nearly 80 years' worth of high-definition video – in one day.

The Boeing A-160 Hummingbird (pictured) is a 6,500-lb. helicopter-style drone that, unlike other drones, is capable of autonomous flight, hovering for extended periods of time, and vertical take-off and landing. It can fly as high as 30,000 ft. – approximately three-times higher than conventional helicopters – at speeds of up to 160 mph for 24 hours at a time.

The A-160 Hummingbird’s most coveted feature, however, is its Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System, or ARGUS-IS. Named after the mythological Greek hundred-eyed giant Argus Panoptes, meaning “all-seeing,” the ARGUS-IS is a 1.8 gigapixel camera system with 65 independent and steerable “windows” that allow operators to survey 36 square miles at once. This means that the A-160 Hummingbird can automatically and simultaneously track a group of individuals even when they split up and travel in many different directions.

Over the next year, the U.S. Army will deploy and test three A-160 Hummingbirds in Afghanistan. The stated uses are surveillance, reconnaissance and communications missions, target acquisition, and re-supply operations.

Supersonic drones

The DARPA launched its second test flight of a rocket-launched hypersonic drone in August 2011. The Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV-2) (pictured), manufactured by Lockheed Martin, successfully detached from its Minotaur IV rocket and travelled over the Pacific Ocean at 20 times the speed of sound, or approximately 3.6 miles per second, for nine minutes before losing contact with ground control. The HTV-2, which has thus far cost an estimated US$320 million, is part of the U.S. government’s effort to develop technology capable of striking targets anywhere on the globe within one hour.


Illustrations by Cameron Tulk

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