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.
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.
Current: RQ-11B Raven (AeroVironment)
Current: Wasp III (AeroVironment)
Current: Desert Hawk (Lockheed Martin)
Current: MD4-200 (Microdrone)
Current: T-Hawk/gMAV (Honeywell)
Current: Aerosonde (AAI Corporation)
Current: FINDER (Naval Research Laboratory)
Current: ScanEagle (Insitu)
Current: RQ-7 Shadow (AAI)
Current: Heron (Israeli Aerospace Industries)
Current: Hermes 450/Watchkeeper (Elbit Systems)
Current: MQ-1 Predator (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
Current: MQ-9 Reaper (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
Current: MQ-5 Hunter (Northrup Grumman)
Current: RQ-4 Global Hawk (Northrop Grumman)
Future: Phantom Ray
Habitat: Edwards Air Force Base, Lancaster, California
Behavior: Spawn of Boeing Phantom Works’s defunct X-45C, this prototype jet-powered flying wing has morphed into a test bed for advanced UAV technologies, including electronic warfare tools like radar jamming, autonomous aerial refueling, air-missile defense and surveillance. Engineers expect it to fly at up to 40,000 feet. With an anticipated cruising speed of up to 610 mph, the Phantom Ray will be one of the fastest UAVs on record.
Notable Feature: Its unusual shape allows it to evade radar.
Habitat: Defense giant BAE Systems laboratory in London
Behavior: The Demon flies with no fins and almost no moving parts, so it rarely needs repairs. Software makes it partially autonomous.
Notable Features: The entire body of the craft is shaped like a wing. Dozens of thrusters situated on its top and bottom shape airflow, replacing the work typically done by tail fins and ailerons. Onboard software varies the strength of each thruster to control pitch, side-to-side movement (yaw) and roll. BAE Systems engineers hope to begin test flights this month.
Habitat: A belt of relatively calm air around 55,000 feet
Behavior: Lockheed Martin’s design for Darpa’s Vulture program can stay aloft for five years, turning lazy circles above any patch of ground that needs continuous monitoring. A suite of day-and-night cameras can scan a 600-mile swath, sending data back to handlers on the ground. The craft will have to beat out species from a Boeing-led consortium and Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences for a second round of funding.
Notable Feature: The craft’s semiflexible structure bends instead of breaking when winds cause the long span to oscillate violently.
Future: RQ-170 Sentinel
Habitat: Migrating from its suspected home base at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, this top-secret military spy drone makes classified sorties into enemy terrain.
Behavior: An offspring of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works program, the RQ-170 Sentinel flies via satellite link from a base in Tonopah, Nevada, but little else is know about it. In unofficial photographs, it closely resembles a 1945 Luftwaffe design called the Horten Ho 229.
Notable Feature: Sensor pods built into the edge of its wings probably give it surveillance capabilities, and the absence of a wing-mounted weapons payload likely keeps it light and off the radar.
Habitat: Afghanistan and disaster zones, starting in June, according to British manufacturer Aesir. About the size and shape of a spare tire, the Embla lifts straight up from the ground without the need for a runway, making it more useful to combat soldiers stationed in rough terrain. Its diminutive size lets it zoom down urban canyons to find hard-to-reach enemy hideouts, and it can send video to a remote PDA-size controller, revealing potential ambushes. Loaded with explosives, it could even enter an enemy compound on a suicide mission. Yet it’s not exclusively a military breeda€”Embla’s maneuverability makes it a good scout in emergency scenarios too dangerous for humans to enter.
Behavior: The Embla can change direction on a dime, fly at 50 mph, and climb to 10,000 feet. It also has the ability to hover in place to, for instance, transmit encrypted HD video. Notable Feature: Whereas a ducted fan funnels air straight down to generate lift, the Embla’s turbine sucks air in through its top and forces it out through a skirt-like wing. This design bends the flow toward the ground. This makes Embla strong enough to carry cameras, weapons and sensors on its belly, oriented toward the terrain it’s watching.
Future: Ion Tiger
Habitat: European airfields, potentially, from which it could reach the Middle East, once the Navy perfects the fuel-cell technology inside. It could fly as low as 1,000 feet without being heard on the ground, or as high as 14,000 feet.
Behavior: Its ability to stay aloft for 24 hours allows the Ion Tiger to encroach on the terrain of much bigger birds, such as the Predator, and its small size lets it get closer to a target to shoot footage with its lighter, cheaper camera.
Notable Feature: Its carbon-wrapped aluminum hydrogen tanks weigh only about nine pounds each, which helps this UAV stay airborne longer.
Habitat: Future war zones, on land and at sea. If Aurora Flight Sciences can scale up the prototype, Excalibur could be deployed on the battlefield within five years.
Behavior: Unlike Air Force drones, which are flown by operators stateside and are in short supply, the Excalibur can be remotely operated from wherever it’s deployeda€”the mountains of Afghanistan or the helipad of a shipa€”providing immediate tactical support to Army, Navy and Marine troops. It can take off and land without a runway and flies at 30,000 feet. Fitted with 400 pounds of laser-guided munitions, including Hellfire missiles, the hybrid turbine-electric Excalibur strikes enemy targets up to 600 miles away from its handler. It can loiter and inspect the damage with a suite of infrared or electro-optical surveillance cameras and follow anyone who gets away.
Notable Feature: After takeoff, the jet engine pivots in-line with the fuselage, and the lift turbines retract inside the wing section for forward flight. It travels at a brisk 530 mpha€”twice as fast as a helicopter.
Future: S-100 Camcopter
Habitat: Warships, borders, forest fires, mob scenes
Behavior: Made by Austrian electronics manufacturer Schiebel, the helicopter can take off and land autonomously from a half-sized helipad and fly for six hours with a 75-pound payload at 120 knots. Fitted with its standard infrared and daytime cameras, it can hover at up to 18,000 feet and watch anything from troop movements to illegal border crossings to spreading forest fires.
Notable Feature: Separate controls for the vehicle and the cameras or payload allow for complex missions, such as deploying tear gas over a crowd.
Habitat: Israeli borders
Behavior: Equipped with cameras and sensors, SkyLite typically flies up to 36,000 feet, the same altitude as commercial airplanes, providing a bird’s-eye view of enemy terrain and movement.
Notable Feature: Fits in a backpack and can stay aloft for four hours on a single charge
Habitat: Up to 40,000 feet above any battlefield, disaster site or border, relaying intelligence data back to controllers on the ground
Behavior: All a soldier will have to do to send the self-piloted Mantis on a mission is push a button. From there, it can calculate flight plans, fly around obstacles, and check in with ground controllers when it spots something interesting, like smoke or troop movement. At the end of the mission, it flies home and lands itself. Mantis’s maiden flight went off without a hitch in Australia last October, an astoundingly fast developmenta€”it didn’t even exist in 2007. BAE Systems expects it to be ready for sale within two years and hopes to use it as a proving ground for systems in its forthcoming automated stealth bomber, the Taranis.
Notable Feature: Mantis is the first in a new breed of smart drones. A craft that can hone its searches requires less bandwidth than those that constantly stream images. Mantis can also monitor itself for damagea€”a sputtering engine, for examplea€”and adjust its electronics to complete a mission. It can fly up to 345 miles an hour and operate for up to 36 hours.
Habitat: Flight-operations center for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Palmdale, California, where it’s performing final test flights for prospective buyers
Behavior: The stealthy jet-powered Avenger is packed with 3,000 pounds of surveillance equipment and lethal munitions, such as laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 500-pound GBU-38 bombs. It can reach speeds of up to 530 mph, far faster than its spindly predecessors, the Predator and Reaper. With fuel packed into every available nook of the fuselage, it can loiter above a target for nearly 20 hours.
Notable Feature: Its internal weapons bay allows for interchangeable payloads, such as next-gen wide-area surveillance sensors.
Future: Boeing HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) Concept
Future: Global Observer