Drones: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know But Were Always Afraid to Ask

07/03/2013 23:29

Which other nations have them? Did they exist during the Civil War? What do they have to do with tacos and rhinos?

drone painting

If you've checked out the news these past few (or many) months, you've probably noticed some news about drones. Drones used by the CIA to vaporize suspected terrorists. Drones used by the United States military. Drones that deliver food. Drones used by cops. Drones possibly violating the US Constitution. Drones protecting wildlife. Drones in pop culture. Maybe this has left you with some burning questions about these increasingly prominent flying robots. Here's an easy-to-read, nonwonky guide to them—we'll call it Drones for Dummies.

When was the drone invented? Assuming you're talking about the scary kinds of drones that bomb America's suspected enemies, you're probably thinking of the MQ-1 Predator, developed by military contractor General Atomics. This Predator drone was first introduced in 1995 as a surveillance and intelligence gathering tool, and was then tricked-out to launch weapons like hellfire missiles.

The MQ-1 Predator—used mainly by the CIA and the US Air Force—has seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Bosnia and Serbia. The subsequent (and larger) incarnation of the Predator is the MQ-9 Reaper.

But hasn't this idea been around a lot longer? Indeed, the modern military drone can be traced back to the early 20th century: ­In the­ 1930s, the British Royal Navy developed the Queen Bee, a rudimentary radio-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was used for aerial target practice for British pilots. The Queen Bee could fly as fast as 100 mph; the top speed for your average modern day Predator is 135 mph.

There is even a rough historical blueprint for modern-day UAVs from the American Civil War, in which both the North and South floated balloons packed with explosives and time-sensitive triggers. The idea was for the balloons to drop into enemy depots and blow up enemy supplies and ammo. (Things didn't go as planned: "It wasn't terribly effective," according to Dyke Weatherington, the man responsible for acquisition oversight of Department of Defense unmanned aircraft systems.)

Besides General Atomics, who else is in the drone business today? The usual suspects: major defense contractors including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, plus a number of smaller companies.

Who besides the US has drones for national security purposes? The following 11 governments are known to possess armed UAVs:

  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Italy
  • Iran
  • Israel
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

And according to a July 2012 report by the US Government Accountability Office, 76 countries have UAVs of some kind, up from 41 countries in 2005. Here's a map and list from the 58-page document:

list map drone strikes


Do all military drones look like this one I've seen in the news?

Nope. Drones used by militaries around the world come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For instance:

drones types

US Navy photo by Photographers Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain

Here is another chart from the 2012 GAO report detailing the three major categories used by the US military—Mini, Tactical, and Strategic:

3 major types of drones




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