Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or as they are more commonly known, drones, have been part of military operations for decades dating all the way back to World War I. For much of that history, drones have been used for surveillance operations and at the beginning of the 21st century drones with weapon systems were developed for long-range attacks. The first Predator drone was used for a targeted killing in 2002 in the Middle East. These days however, the use of drones in the military is evolving in conjunction with the technology and diversifying their uses. At the current rate of advancement, the possibilities for military drones are changing constantly– they are now capable of everything from long-range surveillance to logistics with more advancements occurring daily.
One such advancement in the field of logistics drones is China’s AT200 cargo UAV – which is being used to supply military installations in the South China Sea. The AT200 is China’s heaviest cargo drone with a payload of 1500 kilograms, which is ideal for not only military transport but also securing military supplies for isolated islands. It also only requires a 200-meter-long runway for takeoffs and landings – making it good for supplying small islands and spaces most manned aircraft cannot reach easily
Israel has also been developing a cargo UAV – the Cormorant – and recently fitted the device with a more powerful engine than previous models. The Cormorant is a drone capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) which is beneficial for delivering supplies or cargo to areas without readily available runways. Both Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and South Korea’s Hankuk Carbon have been developing VTOL drones for the last few years, and decided to form a joint venture called Korean Aviation Technologies (KAT) in the service of the technology. The plan is to produce next-generation drones that can handle loads up to 450 kilograms – which would surely benefit both military and government operations for both nations and beyond.
Thanks to the breakneck speed technology is increasing in the field of UAVs, defense drones are becoming more efficient and lower cost. Militaries all over the world have been developing low-cost defense drones to increase their power without having to worry about pilot safety. Thanks to stealth technology, these UAVs can gain admittance to denied access airspace – free from the required life support systems of human manned aircraft these are able to minimize signatures in all trackable domains. IAI have also developed a leading defense drone, the Heron TP, a monstrous turboprop-powered UAV which is equipped with self-protection systems to secure its freedom of operation in contested airspace. Other countries have shown an interest in this drone including India and more recently Australia – demonstrating its sheer capability is desired all over the world.
As militaries expand the capability of their defense drones, naturally the technology to disrupt those capabilities is advancing as well. Russia has recently established a ground-based unit specializing in defeating enemy drones. It employs an electronic jamming system that will sever the radio connections used link UAVs to their pilots. With this kind of a threat to drone usage in the military, it will only further accelerate the development of fully autonomous drones. With the massive leaps taking place in the development of AI technology, the future of the mass deployment of human-independent drones is on the horizon. These drones will have the capability to make their own survival decisions – independent of any human error which could potentially create a more efficient military.
The final type of drone seeing great advancements recently is reconnaissance and spy drones, the original use of UAVs in the military. Northrop Grumman recently supplied its MQ-4C Triton drone to the US Navy to monitor the seas. The Triton in conjunction with the P-8 Poseidon jet, will replace the older propeller driven P-3C Orion which has patrolled the seas for over 50 years in service with the Navy. The Triton will assume intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance duties for the Navy and free up pilots for other missions. An upgraded version of this drone is set to roll out within four years and continue to serve as a “24-hour unblinking eye in the sky” according to Northrop.
China is also testing a new type of spy drone capable of reaching “near space” heights – about 20 kilometers above sea level – where most machines are incapable of flying due to the thin air. When reaching air this thin, it is difficult for drones to generate lift and the low temperatures can cause electronic issues – which is why this advancement is so substantial for the future of spy drones. The near-space area of our atmosphere has always been seen as a promising frontier for intelligence operations, but has remained unfeasible due to being too high for most aircraft and too low for satellites. Drones equipped with cameras and other sensors are the best shot at achieving near-space usage, and at a fraction of the cost of using satellites.
While some drones may still be used for surveillance, as they were originally intended, their capabilities have increased exponentially. From short-range spy missions to 24/7 surveillance of our seas and near-space reconnaissance, these are just a fraction of the advancements in drone technology of recent years. Internationally, militaries have also introduced the use of logistics and cargo drones, capable of delivering supplies to areas that even our most skilled pilots flying state-of-the-art aircraft could not reach. As drone technology continues to advance, we will see militaries developing what to the general public are presently unimaginable uses for UAVs and creating a more efficient and safer military for all. The next level for military drones is the fully autonomous UAV – the pinnacle of efficiency in drone operations.