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)
****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 asituational 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.
Current: Wasp III (AeroVironment)
****Habitat:**** Anywhere U.S. Air Force Special Ops forces might be lurking ****Behavior:**** Weighing in at one pound, this hand-launch flying wing is outfitted with a day and night camera and can be programmed to fly an autonomous mission between takeoff and recovery. It flies 20 to 40 mph up to 500 feet, and is meant to be expendable once it gets its eyes on a target.
Notable Feature: Its electric, two-bladed propeller makes it sneaky quiet. Its inventory is classified.
Current: Desert Hawk (Lockheed Martin)
Habitat: In the realm of British and American troops in Afghanistan. Behavior: Once it’s chucked into the air, Desert Hawk follows pre-programmed coordinates to give troops an aover-the-hilla view, day or night, up to six miles away. At two pounds (with a collapsible 4.5-foot wingspan), it’s easy to transport. Notable Feature: Built of injection-molded expanded polypropylene and fitted with Kevlar skids, the Desert Hawk is as durable as a Nerf.
Current: MD4-200 (Microdrone)
Habitat: The surrounds of Liverpool, UK, flown by officers of the Mersyside police department’s Anti-social Behavior Task Force. Behavior: The four-rotor design of the battery-powered, carbon-fiber pod, which weighs just 2.2 pounds, allows it to take off and land vertically. Brushless, direct-drive electric motors keep the noise level below 64 decibels, according to the company. Notable Feature: If it loses signal or senses a low battery, it will land itself autonomously rather than crash.
Current: T-Hawk/gMAV (Honeywell)
Habitat: With U.S. Army infantry in Iraq. Behavior: Looking like a mini Webber grill with four coat hangers for landing skids, the VTOL T-Hawk can zip up to 10,000 feet for up to 45 minutes. At 16.5 pounds its backpackable. Notable Feature: Did we mention the Webber grill?
Current: Aerosonde (AAI Corporation)
Habitat: Stormy seas, or any other inhospitable or inaccessible spot scientific researchers want to study up close. Behavior: The first UAV to cross the Atlantic Ocean, back in 1998, the 9.8-foot, 28-pound research craft can fly up to 30 hours on a single tank of gas. In 2007 it delivered unprecedented weather readings from Hurricane Noel, loitering as low as 300 feet above the surface, and streaming data for more than seven hours before it was ditched in the ocean. Notable Feature: The inverted V tail combines functions of what would be the horizontal and vertical parts of the tail wing, saving weight. It has one horsepower.
Current: FINDER (Naval Research Laboratory)
Habitat: The wing-mounted weapons pylons beneath Predator drones, from which it is launched. Behavior: About the size of Nicole Richie, at 5-foot-3 and 58 pounds, the FINDER, or Flight Inserted Detection Expendable for Reconnaissance, it can be flown via the Predator controls and directed to a smoke plume to sniff out chemical weapons or under a cloud bank to get a closer view of a potential target. Notable Feature: It launches like a rocket, and then its wings unfold. Plus, it’s a drone launched by another dronea€”spooky.
Current: ScanEagle (Insitu)
Habitat: With Marine Corps troops in Iraq or aboard U.S. Navy ships anywhere in the world. Behavior: It’s about 40 pounds and four-feet long with a 10.2-foot wingspan, and is powered by a gasoline engine for 15 hours. Its catapult launch makes it ideal for tight spaces, like the deck of the ship that rescued Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates last April. Notable Feature: To land, the ScanEagle’s navigation points it toward a sky hook that snares it out of the sky.
Current: RQ-7 Shadow (AAI)
Habitat: Iraq and Afghanistan, where Army battalions need tactical surveillance. It has flown hundreds of thousands of hours. Behavior: It launches from a catapult, can stay aloft for five to six hours up to 14,000 feet, and lands autonomously on wheels, with the help of a net. It’s a little more than 11 feet long, weighs 375 pounds and has a wingspan of 14 feet. Notable Feature: With its infrared illuminator, it can laser-pinpoint targets for laser-guided missiles and bombs.
Current: Heron (Israeli Aerospace Industries)
Habitat: Watching over Israel, patrolling India’s borders with Pakistan and China, looking for drug traffickers in El Salvador, and dozens of other missions around the globe, where the unarmed surveillance craft is used by countries importing it from Israel. Behavior: With a 54-foot wingspan and max altitude ceiling of 30,000 feet, the Heron uses an advanced collection of sensors to stream data to its handlers. It can stay aloft for 52 hours. Notable Feature: I can take off and land autonomously, even in poor weather conditions.
Current: Hermes 450/Watchkeeper (Elbit Systems)
Habitat: Providing target coordinates over Israeli battlefields, and reconnaissance for British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Behavior: It can loiter for about 20 hours on its 34-foot wing, up to an altitude of 18,000 feet, providing real-time surveillance to battlefield commanders. Notable Features: The odd, torpedo-on-a-popsicle-stick design give the craft a high payload to weight ratio: one third of its 992 pounds. It has two gimbals, fore and aft, for surveillance gear.
Current: MQ-1 Predator (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
Habitat: The skies of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Behavior: As one of only two major U.S. unmanned systems that carry weapons (in this case, two Hellfire air-to-ground missiles), the Predator bears the brunt of the hunter-killer role with its successor, the beefier MQ-9 Reaper. It has a range of 400 nautical miles, and can hover over a target for 20+ hours. Notable Features: The Predator was first drone system to see heavy use both as a reconnaissance platform and in an attack role, first seeing action in Bosnia in the mid 1990s. The name “Predator” is now almost synonymous with hunter-killer UAVs.
Current: MQ-9 Reaper (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
Habitat: Hunting and killing insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Patrolling the U.S. Mexican Border out of Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Behavior: With a wingspan of 66 feet, it’s twice the size of its precursor MQ-1 Predator, and can loiter at 5,000 feet for up to 24 hours. Loaded with 3,000 pounds of munitions, including the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb and Hellfire tank-penetrating missiles, military commanders say it has become one of their most effective weapons in the current war. Notable Feature: After being launched by operators using radio-control equipment, it’s flown via satellite link from pilots on safe soil in the U.S.
Current: MQ-5 Hunter (Northrup Grumman)
Habitat: Flown by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Behavior: The Hunter has been in service since just before the Balkans war, and was recently retrofitted in the MQ variant to run on heavy fuel and carry Viper Strike munitions. It has a 34-foot wingspan and can fly 18 hours, up to 18,000 feet. Notable Feature: It can be flown with the same ground control station as the Shadow and the Army’s version of the Predator.
Current: RQ-4 Global Hawk (Northrop Grumman)
Habitat: High above Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistana€”or anywhere else the U.S. Central Command wants to keep under watch. Behavior: Soaring at 65,000 feet with an endurance of 36 hours, the Global Hawk can keep watch over 40,000 nautical square miles per mission. Carrying a full suite of electro-optical, infrared and synthetic aperture radar sensors, it can operate day and night in all weather conditions. The larger variation has a 130-foot wingspan. Notable Feature: The fact that it can take off and land autonomously greatly reduces the potential for crashes, which have handicapped the Predator and Reaper.
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.
Size: Less than 100 pounds, 75-foot wingspan Habitat: 50,000 feet above Yuma, Arizona, where London-based manufacturer QinetiQ is testing prototypes Notable Feature:Made of carbon fiber and powered by paper-thin silicon solar cells, the ultra-lightweight aircraft is launched by hand and stays aloft for up to three months.
Future: Boeing HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) Concept
Size: 7 tons, 250-foot wingspan Habitat: 65,000 feet above future battlefields, where it will provide 24/7 surveillance and data communication Notable Feature: The plane stays up for 10 days, powered by a Ford truck engine modified to run on hydrogen fuel.
Future: Global Observer
Size: Weight undisclosed, 175-foot wingspan Habitat: Made by Monrovia, California’s AeroVironment, Global Observer will circle up to 65,000 feet above battlefields, disaster sites, bordersa€”any locale in need of aerial surveillance or a wireless data link Notable Feature: Liquid hydrogen powers an electric generator, which drives four propellors.
Class: Biomimetic Size: 150 grams, 12-inch wingspan Habitat: Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Tech Laboratories in Bethesda, Maryland Behavior: Like the spiraling maple-leaf seedlingsa€”more commonly known as whirlybirdsa€”that inspired it, the single wing spins around a central hub to create lift. A miniature jet engine provides thrust. A tiny flap on the trailing edge of the wing, its only moving part, controls direction. If engineers can shrink it to three inches and 15 grams, the autonomous device could be used to spy indoors. Notable Feature: In the future, a camera mounted on the central hub that snaps a picture once every rotation will collect enough images to stitch together full-motion video. Diet: Today, batteries; but engineers plan to feed the next version propane, which is light and readily available in the military supply chain