With hundreds of different species, from spy craft to airborne sheepherders, UAVs have in the past decade morphed into a full-blown kingdom of creatures deserving of its own taxonomy. Here is our complete guide.
Today 44 countries fly UAVs, according to P.W. Singer, a fellow at the public-policy think tank the Brookings Institution and author of Wired for War. Last year, the U.S. Air Force trained more UAV pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. “Every so often in history, there’s a tech that comes along that rewrites the rules of the game,” Singer says. “I describe this as a revolution.”
But UAVs aren’t just multiplying—they’re getting faster, stronger and smarter with each generation. The new Avenger hunt-and-kill drone, for instance, is three times as fast as the original Predator, which has flown more than half a million hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hand-launched Ravens favored by the Army stream encrypted digital data, allowing many of the 7,000 birds currently in action to serve as an instant communication relay. On the civilian side, crafts like the hovering Embla will be available to scout disaster sites as early as this summer.
You may not have actually seen one yet, but you will (unless, of course, it doesn’t want to be seen). To give you a leg up on identification, here’s your field guideto the latest UAV discoveries, as well as an overview of the most prevalent systems in use today.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.