Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are essentially airplanes that have no humans on board. They are also sometimes referred to as drones in common speech, and the term Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is technically preferred. The history of UAVs starts as far back as World War I, when the military used what were essentially remote-controlled airplanes to train their artillery men in anti-aircraft fighting. It wasn’t until the 1980s that UAVs began to be used for other purposes, with the Israeli Defense Force using them to carry out a number of scouting operations. In recent years, many militaries – particularly the United States – have begun focusing intensely on using UAVs whenever possible.
UAVs offer a number of benefits over traditional aircraft. Chief among these is the fact that UAVs create no danger to pilots, allowing the military to deploy aircraft into hostile regions without fearing the loss of soldiers. UAVs may also eventually be substantially cheaper than traditional aircraft, as they can be much smaller and do without a number of life-support systems necessary on piloted aircraft.
In the past UAVs have been used mainly for scouting missions and communications. Since they can be very small, UAVs can often pass completely undetected for stealthy intelligence gathering. Some modern UAVs have been equipped with weaponry, and in the United States, they are being used to phase out piloted air-to-land combat missions. The most famous of these next generation combat UAVs is the Predator, which is equipped with Hellfire missiles in order to take out ground installations.
UAVs span a wide range of autonomy, with the simplest being controlled solely by radio with no independent action, and the most complex incorporating sophisticated artificial intelligence that allows them to undertake entire missions once programmed. The current push in UAVs is towards a vehicle that can be programmed with a general route and target, which will then take off, fly to the mission area, destroy the target, return to base, and land, all without the need for a human handler. Even in this scenario, however, a controller would be responsible on the ground for giving the order to fire or drop a payload. This fits into current military doctrine and ensures that there will always be a responsible agent in the event of an incorrect target.
The field of UAVs is developing rapidly, with advanced militaries throughout the world spending large amounts of their budgets on pushing the bounds of what is currently possible. Many of the world’s great military powers are developing the next generation of UAVs right now, and within the next decade, they will begin to be deployed to arenas of war.