Drones have had a profound effect on the way America fights its wars, allowing it to fight in new theaters while minimizing the risk to troops. The U.S. has used drones for decades, with early versions flown during World War II and the Vietnam War. But over the past decade, the Defense Department's development and production of drones has rapidly increased. The U.S. military has gone from having just a few drones at the outset of the Iraq War to now over 7,000.
And we're not alone, not by a long shot. The lure of enduring overhead surveillance and strike capability at a safe remove -- and at a relative bargain -- is just as appealing to the rest of the world's militaries as it is to us. Sure, American drone technology is a sought-after brand on the international arms market, but other countries have and increasingly are developing their own platforms. Allies like Israel and adversaries like Iran have used reconnaissance drones in combat since the 1980s and continue to turn out new models. China is taking its lead from American drone models with knockoff Predators and Global Hawks.
Today, more than 50 countries are using or developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Here are some of the most interesting.
Israel's Heron TP
The Heron TP (a.k.a. "Eitan"), built by Israeli Aerospace Industries, boasts an impressive array of features. It can fly for up to 36 hours at heights of over 40,000 feet carrying a payload of over a ton. For snooping from above, the Heron is chocked full of sensors and reconnaissance gear, including forward-looking infrared, laser ranger finder, electro-optical, maritime patrol and synthetic aperture radar, among others. Significantly, it's also capable of carrying weapons and can reach targets as far away as Iran. The Heron might even lead an attack on the Mullahs' nuclear facilities, jamming cellphone networks and spoofing air defense systems.
It's a step up from its predecessor, the similarly titled Heron-1 reconnaissance drone. Unarmed, it can fly for four hours longer than its more advanced cousin and carries only a quarter of the payload. Still, the original Heron has proven a popular export around the world, providing Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance unmanned spying capability to India, Turkey, Brazil and other countries. Israel successfully leveraged sales of the Heron-1 to a drone-hungry Russia in order to dissuade it from arming Iran with sophisticated air defense missiles.
Israel's been a leader in drone technology for quite some time now, even supplying America with a fair share of its robotic planes. (U.S. drone maintenance crews used to have to learn Hebrew is order to keep the UAVs flying.) In early October, the Israeli Air Force celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first drone unit, Squadron 200. The unit was created in order to help the Israeli air force spy on neighboring air defense missiles without risk to pilots. Squadron 200 first used an Israeli-modified version of the U.S. Ryan Firebee UAV, the Firebee 1241, bought from the U.S. in 1970. Following the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Israel purchased a number of other American UAVs and began developing one of its own reconnaissance models, the Scout, which became operational in June of 1981. Photo: IDF
China's Pterodactyl I
China's notorious for being awash in pirated goods, but the copycat trend isn't limited just to consumer goods. They've been making knockoff American drones since the 1960s. Consider one of the latest imitations, the Pterodactyl I. Look familiar? It's China's version of an armed Predator drone. If you've always wanted one, but could never convince America to sell it to you, you're in luck: the Pterodactyl is available for export. Roughly the same size as the Predator, Chinese officials claim it has similar capabilities, with a 20 hour maximum endurance (compared to the Predator's 24) and the ability to carry about 10 pounds less than the Predator's 450 pound payload. The Pterodactyl apparently imitates another Predator feature, too: it crashes. Photos of what appears to be a crashed Pterodactyl in Hebei Province, China surfaced late this summer.
Just because China copies American drones, though, doesn't mean it operates a UAV force with the same capabilities as the U.S. military. It's still behind in developing the engine technology, communications satellites and human capital necessary to support a drone fleet on par with Uncle Sam's.
China's Soaring Dragon
The armed Predator isn't the only American drone China's tried to copy. The Soaring Dragon ("Xianglong") is China's spin on America's high-altitude, long endurance Global Hawk reconnaissance drone. A project of China's Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute and Guizhou Aviation Group, the HQ-4 even mimics the Global Hawk's designation, RQ-4. Pictures, video and models of the Chinese drone show it imitates the Global Hawk's distinctive shape with a long, thin wings, a top-mounted rear engine and rounded nose scoop.
The Xianglong flies shy of the Block 10 model Global Hawk's 65,000 foot maximum height at 57,000 feet, but with a roughly 4,300 mile range doesn't come close to the Global Hawk's approximately 14,000 mile range. Not much is known about what specific kinds of sensors and spy gear the Xianglong will carry. China has already taken the Xianglong out for a spin with a November 2009 test flight.
Despite its namesake, China's Soaring Dragon is a surveillance drone and won't be raining fire on enemies -- at least not directly. It's believed to be intended for maritime use, pointing out targets at sea for China's anti-ship missiles.
Just because it's under sanctions, doesn't mean Iran is going without when it comes to military drone technology. It's been flying drones since the late 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war.
First produced in 1993, most Ababil ("Swallow") models are designed for reconnaissance. The Ababil-T, though, comes equipped with a high explosive warhead. The drones can be launched either by a rocket or pneumatic system and can return to ground using a parachute or skids. Ababils are controlled remotely by radio telemetry and operate in autopilot using GPS and an interial navigation system.
Ababil variants have shown up in the skies over a few Middle Eastern conflicts in recent years. In early 2009, U.S. forces in Iraq spotted an Ababil-3 crossing the border from Iran into Iraq and tracked the UAV for over an hour before shooting it down. During the 2006 Lebanon war, the Israeli air force downed an Ababil-T supplied to Hezbollah while it was flying over Haifa.
But Iran isn't just coasting on its holdover drone technology from the 80s and 90s.. Iran's been ramping up drone production and research recently, exploring new kinds of homegrown unmanned systems. Photo: Iran-Airshow.com
Russia's been a fairly eager customer of Israeli UAV technology, but it's also been trying to develop some new drones of its own. Take the Stork ("Aist"), for example. Russia had hoped the Stork would be capable of a variety of missions. With a maximum payload of 1,100 lbs, it was supposed to conduct reconnaissance and point out targets for the Iskander-M short range ballistic missile system. Russia even hoped for an armed version that capable of strikes. It was supposed to do all this, that is, until it literally crashed and burned on the runway during testing in early 2010.
Rustom is India's homegrown Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance drone. Developed by India's Aeronautic Development Establishment, it's expected to come in three different variants. The Rustom-1 and Rustom-H are surveillance models. The smaller Rustom-1 has already passed five test flights and will have a 12-14 hour endurance. The the larger H-model will fly for twice that long at 24 hours. Its surveillance kit includes day and night eletro optic sensors, synthetic aperture radar and maritime patrol radar as well as electronic and communications intelligence sensors. There's also an armed variant of the Rustom in the works, the Rustom-C, based on the H-model. If successful, the Rustom program will help India fill out its fleet with homemade models of long endurance drones, replacing its fleet of Israeli-made Herons. Photo: Wikipedia
Reconnaissance and attack aren't the only missions drones can be useful for. Developed and funded by Israel's Urban Aeronautics Ltd., the AirMule drone program is designed to ferry cargo, medevac the wounded and resupply troops in areas where conventional aircraft can't go. AirMule flies using ducted fans, giving it vertical take-off and landing ability as well as a unique Star Wars-style landspeeder appearance. Sure, AirMule looks like a movie prop. But Israel's Air Force and Medical Corps have reportedly expressed interest in purchasing the hover drone.
Developed by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) for Germany and Spain, the EADS Barracuda is an experimental attempt at a UCAV with some stealth features. The demonstrator was first revealed to the public in 2006. It quickly ran into trouble when the only existing demonstrator crashed that year during flight test. EADS said it wouldn't continue the program, but later reversed itself. The drone reportedly comes equipped with radar absorbing materials. It's capable of carrying a range of infrared and electro optical sensors and synthetic aperture radar.
A number of European have been toying with stealth killer drone demonstrators in recent years. Britain's BAE is working on the delta-shaped, stealth Taranis strike drone demonstrator. France's Dassault Aviation is leading a consortium of Italian, Greek, Spanish, Swedish and Swiss companies working on the nEUROn demonstrator, again delta-shaped, stealth and armed. So if you're planning on pitching Europeans on a drone design, remember: weapons, triangles and stealth features are your best selling points. Photo: yyzphillip/Flickr
China's Dark Sword
Dark Sword is China's concept for a fast-flying killer drone. Precise details about the combat drone are hard to come as China has only given sneak peeks of the program. Still, pictures, models and comments by Chinese official portray Dark Sword as aiming for stealth capability and intended for air-to-air combat. The triangular-shaped design with apparently retractable canards leads many to assume China is hoping the Dark Sword would be capable of long range missions and supersonic speeds. Photo: Pakistan Defence Forum
Israel's Harpy exists in the space somewhere between a missile and an attack drone. The vehicle-launched system loiters in the air for hours looking for enemy radar systems. Once it detects an enemy air defense radar, it dives straight for the source of the signal, detonating its warhead in the air above to destroy it.
Israel has exported the Harpy to a number of countries, but its exports to China briefly landed it in hot water with the Defense Department. In 2004, Israel planned to upgrade Harpy drones it had sold to China in the 1990s, to the loud objection of the United States. Israel ultimately scuttled the upgrade plans, and the Defense Department gave it a short time-out from the international consortium building the F-35 stealth jet. Photo: Wikipedia
Iran rolled out Karrar, its long distance bomber drone, in 2010 with much fanfare. Iranian officials claim the jet-powered drone can carry about 500lbs worth of weapons – configured either for two 250 lb bombs or a single 500 lb one – with a range of about 600 miles. Observers argue over whether the Karrar ("Striker") is more a copy of America's MQM-107 Streaker drone from the mid-1970s or the South African Denel Dynamics Skua, first developed in the 1980s. That would make it less the "ambassador of death" Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad hailed it as and more an envoy of the past