Breaking Down the Global Progression of Drones

Research and technology in the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) is developing at a rapid rate. Military UAVs used for surveillance and aerial assault missions are the most commonly referenced drones in mainstream discourse, however, this technology is quickly diffusing to private sector applications. Privately owned drones are currently being utilized to maximize commercial efficiency and to facilitate access to unique aerial perspectives. Additionally, smaller drones with multiple rotors have surpassed remote control fixed-wing planes as the hobbyist’s choice for recreational use.

The Center for a New American Security recently released a report entitled World of Proliferated Drones: A Technology Primer written by Associate Fellow for Defense Strategies and Assessments Kelley Sayler. The report is an examination of the current status of global drone usage, and how technologies and dispersion of drones are expected to progress in the future. According to statistics referenced in the report’s introduction, “Over 90 countries and non-state actors operate drones today, including at least 30 that operate or are developing armed drones.” The report divides drone usage into four categories, which the author then expands upon in greater detail. These categories and their respective analysis are summarized below.

Hobbyist Drones: This category includes drones that are easily accessible to anybody who can afford a price in the low-mid thousands. Assembly of these products only requires a low level of technical expertise and the ability to follow written instructions. The technology of these drones has advanced to facilitate autonomous flight under certain circumstances; the most common of these scenarios being when a drone loses connection with its control mechanism resulting in the drone returning to the last place it had contact with the controller and/or diverting to a pre-determined location. Similarly, the cameras available on these types of drones are also progressing, and are expected to include infrared, heat detection, and laser technologies in the near future. These innovations would allow for the autonomous ability to “sense-and-avoid” hazardous areas in real-time. Concerns surrounding these drones are mainly related to unauthorized surveillance. Notable occurrences include the Whitehouse and nuclear facilities in France, Belgium and the UK, which have witnessed civilian drone activity. Commercial drones are also reported to have been used to surveil the battlefield by the Ukrainian military and the Islamic State.

Midsize Military and Commercial Drones: For the most part these drones function similarly to hobbyist drones, except that the deeper pockets of corporations and state militaries results in more advanced cutting-edge technology. These drones range in price from hundreds of thousands to the low millions. Their primary use is surveillance, which is facilitated by sophisticated camera and sensor technology allowing them to map weather patterns, track targets, and in some cases detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Their range and flight time is substantially higher than hobbyist drones and if needed, these drones could deliver highly lethal payloads. These drones are operated in 87 countries, making them the most popular type of UAV for state purposes. This relatively low costing technology is expected to continue to diffuse rapidly across international borders through foreign sales. Commercial applications are are also widely used for humanitarian aid and in the agriculture industry (for surveying and/or spraying crops).

Large Military Specific Drones: These drones operate solely in the realm of state actors, as their cost and operation require a large amount of resources. The most popular of this type of drone is the Predator, which has a flight capability of 45 hours. In addition to the obvious advantages in endurance, range, and weapons capabilities available on this type of drone, many are equipped for satellite communication. This technology allows the drones to transfer massive amounts of data and to be controlled from any location equipped for satellite connection. According to the report, “10 countries currently possess armed drones, with at least 20 more openly reported to have active development programs.”

Stealth Combat Drones: The difference between these drones and the previous category is twofold: (1) they have the ability to fly closer to the ground in order to avoid radar detection; and (2) their shape and structural makeup is modified to reduce heat and other detectable signatures. Currently only the U.S. owns and operates UAVs with this type of technology. As opposed to drones like the Predator, which primarily operate in friendly areas or locations without radar technology, stealth drones are designed to function in hostile environments that possess developed radar networks.

The report concludes by re-emphasizing that the prevalence of drone usage on all levels will only continue to grow, for better or for worse.

Additional resources on drones available at the Homeland Security Digital Library (some resources may require HSDL login) include:


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