The Present and Future of Unmanned Drone Aircraft: An Illustrated Field Guide

Inside the wild kingdom of the world’s newest and most spectacular species of unmanned aircraft, from swarming insect ’bots that can storm a burning building to a seven-ton weaponized spyplane invisible to radar
****Habitat:**** As the most prevalent UAV on the planet, with more than 7,000 units in service, you'd be hard pressed to find any Army combat brigade in Afghanistan or Iraq that doesn't have one. ****Behavior:**** Three feet long and 4.2 pounds, the Raven is typically fitted with an electronically stabilized color video camera or an infrared video camera for night missions, which pan, tilt and zoom digitally to provide ground troops with a€œsituational awareness.a€ The fleet is getting a digital upgrade that turns each one into a comm relay, effectively extending its six-mile range. Notable Feature: Light and durable, if it crashes, the wings just pop off, and are easily replaced. Sgt. 1st Class Michael Guillory

New breeds of winged beasts are lurking in the skies. Bearing names like Reaper, Vulture and Demon, they look nothing like their feathered brethren. Better known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, these strange and wily birds are quietly infiltrating vast swaths of airspace, from battlefields to backyards.

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.

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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 guide to the latest UAV discoveries, as well as an overview of the most prevalent systems in use today.

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