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Unmanned aerial vehicle

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File:RQ-7 CM2.jpg
An RQ-2 Pioneer, a reconnaissance UAV used by the US military during the Gulf and Iraq Wars.
File:MQ-8B Fire Scout.jpeg
Although most UAVs are fixed-wing aircraft, rotorcraft designs such as this MQ-8B Fire Scout also exist.

An unmanned, aerial vehicle (UAV), sometimes called an unmanned, air-reconnaissance vehicle, is an unpiloted aircraft. UAVs can be remote controlled or fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight plans or more complex dynamic automation systems. UAVs are currently used in a number of military roles, including reconnaissance and attack. They are also used in a small but growing number of civil applications such as firefighting when a human observer would be at risk, police observation of civil disturbances and crime scenes, and reconnaissance support in natural disasters. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too "dull, dirty, or dangerous" for manned aircraft.

There are a wide variety UAV shapes, sizes, configurations, and characteristics. For the purposes of this article, and to distinguish UAVs from missiles, a UAV is defined as being capable of controlled, sustained level flight and powered by a jet or reciprocating engine. Cruise missiles are not classed as UAVs, because, like many other guided missiles, the vehicle itself is a weapon that is not reused even though it is also unmanned and might in some cases be remotely guided.

The abbreviation UAV has been expanded in some cases to UAVS (Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle System). The Federal Aviation Administration has adopted the generic class Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) originally introduced by the U.S. Navy to reflect the fact that these are not just aircraft, but systems including ground stations and other elements.


The earliest UAV was A. M. Low's "Aerial Target" of 1916.[1] A number of remote-controlled airplane advances followed, including the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, during and after World War I, including the first scale RPV, developed by film star and model airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny in 1935.[2] More were made in the technology rush during the Second World War; these were used both to train anti-aircraft gunners and to fly attack missions. Jet engines were applied after WW2, in such types as the Teledyne Ryan Firebee I of 1951, while companies like Beechcraft also got in the game with their Model 1001 for the United States Navy in 1955.[3] Nevertheless, they were little more than remote controlled airplanes until the Vietnam Era.

File:CPonte Predator1.JPG
Front view of a MQ-1_Predator (Reno Air Show)

With the maturing and miniaturization of applicable technologies as seen in the 1980s and 1990s, interest in UAVs grew within the higher echelons of the US military. UAVs were seen to offer the possibility of cheaper, more capable fighting machines that can be used without risk to aircrews. Initial generations were primarily surveillance aircraft, but some were fitted with weaponry (such as the MQ-1 Predator, which utilized AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles). An armed UAV is known as an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).

In the future, it is expected more and more roles will be performed by unmanned aircraft. Bombing and ground attack will be added to the surveillance role. Air-to-air combat will likely be the last domain of the human pilot. Search and rescue could be performed by UAVs with heat sensors to help find humans lost in the wilderness, trapped in collapsed buildings, or adrift at sea.

UAV classification

The Mexican UAV S4 Ehécatl in take-off mode

UAVs typically fall into one of six functional categories (although multi-role airframe platforms are becoming more prevalent):

  • Target and decoy - providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
  • Reconnaissance - providing battlefield intelligence
  • Combat - providing attack capability for high-risk missions (see Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle)
  • Logistics - UAVs specifically designed for cargo and logistics operation
  • Research and development - used to further develop UAV technologies to be integrated into field deployed UAV aircraft
  • Civil and Commercial UAVs - UAVs specifically designed for civil and commercial applications

They can also be categorised in terms of range/altitude and the following has been advanced as relevant at such industry events as ParcAberporth Unmanned Systems forum.

  • Handheld Template:Convert altitude, about 2 km range
  • Close Template:Convert altitude, up to 10 km range
  • NATO type Template:Convert altitude, up to 50 km range
  • Tactical Template:Convert altitude, about 160 km range
  • MALE (medium altitude, long endurance) up to Template:Convert and range over 200 km
  • HALE (high altitude, long endurance) over 30,000 ft and indefinite range
  • HYPERSONIC high-speed, supersonic (Mach 1-5) or hypersonic (Mach 5+) Template:Convert or suborbital altitude, range over 200km
  • ORBITAL low earth orbit (Mach 25+)
  • CIS Lunar Earth-Moon transfer

The U.S. military employs a tier system for categorizing its UAVs.

U.S. military UAV classifications

The modern concept of U.S. military UAVs is to have the various aircraft systems work together in support of personnel on the ground. The integration scheme is described in terms of a "Tier" system, and is used by military planners to designate the various individual aircraft elements in an overall usage plan for integrated operations. The Tiers do not refer to specific models of aircraft, but rather roles for which various models and their manufacturers competed. The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps each has its own tier system, and the two systems are themselves not integrated.

US Air Force tiers

  • Tier N/A: Small/Micro UAV. Role filled by BATMAV (Wasp Block III). [1]
  • Tier I: Low altitude, long endurance. Role filled by the Gnat 750.[4]
  • Tier II: Medium altitude, long endurance (MALE). Role currently filled by the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.
  • Tier II+: High altitude, long endurance conventional UAV (or HALE UAV). Altitude: 60,000 to Template:Convert, less than Template:Convert airspeed, Template:Convert radius, 24 hour time-on-station capability. Complementary to the Tier III- aircraft. Role currently filled by the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
  • Tier III-: High altitude, long endurance low-observable UAV. Same parameters as, and complementary to, the Tier II+ aircraft. The RQ-3 DarkStar was originally intended to fulfill this role before it was "terminated."[5][6]

US Marine Corps tiers

  • Tier N/A: Micro UAV. Wasp III fills this role, driven largely by the desire for commonality with the USAF BATMAV. [2]
  • Tier I: Role currently filled by the Dragon Eye but all ongoing and future procurement for the Dragon Eye program is going now to the RQ-11B Raven B.
  • Tier II: Role currently filled by the ScanEagle and, to some extent, the RQ-2 Pioneer.
  • Tier III: For two decades, the role of medium range tactical UAV was filled by the Pioneer UAV. In July 2007, the Marine Corps announced its intention to retire the aging Pioneer fleet and transition to the Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System by AAI Corporation. The first Marine Shadow systems have already been delivered, and training for their respective Marine Corps units is underway.[7][8]

U.S. Army tiers

  • Tier I: Small UAV. Role filled by the RQ-11A/B Raven.
  • Tier II: Short Range Tactical UAV. Role filled by the RQ-7A/B Shadow 200.
  • Tier III: Medium Range Tactical UAV. Role currently filled by the RQ-5A / MQ-5A/B Hunter and i-Gnat, but transitioning to the Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP) MQ-1C Warrior.

Future Combat Systems (FCS) (U.S. Army) classes

  • Class I: For small units. Role to be filled by all new UAV with some similarity to Micro Air Vehicle.
  • Class II: For companies. (cancelled.) [3]
  • Class III: For battalions. (cancelled.) [4]
  • Class IV: For brigades. Role to be filled by the RQ-8A/B / MQ-8B Fire Scout.

Unmanned Aircraft System

UAS, or Unmanned Aircraft System, is the official U.S. Department of Defense term for an unmanned, aerial vehicle. The term was first officially used in the DoD 2005 Unmanned Aircraft System Roadmap 2005–2030.[9] Many people have mistakenly used the term Unmanned 'Aerial' System, or Unmanned 'Air Vehicle' System.

Officially, the term "unmanned, aerial vehicle" was changed to "unmanned aircraft system" to reflect the fact that these complex systems include ground stations and other elements besides the actual air vehicles. The term UAS, however, is not widely used, as the term UAV has become part of the modern lexicon.

The military role of UAS is growing at unprecedented rates. In 2005, tactical and theater level unmanned aircraft (UA) alone had flown over 100,000 flight hours in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Rapid advances in technology are enabling more and more capability to be placed on smaller airframes which is spurring a large increase in the number of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) being deployed on the battlefield. The use of SUAS in combat is so new that no formal DoD wide reporting procedures have been established to track SUAS flight hours. As the capabilities grow for all types of UAS, nations continue to subsidize their research and development leading to further advances enabling them to perform a multitude of missions. UAS no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, although this still remains their predominant type. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack (EA), strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD), network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue (CSAR), and derivations of these themes. These UAS range in cost from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars, and the aircraft used in these systems range in size from a Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) weighing less than one pound to large aircraft weighing over 40,000 pounds.

UAV functions

UAVs perform a wide variety of functions. The majority of these functions are some form of remote sensing. Less common UAV functions include interaction and transport. To create viable new UAV systems, these functions are integrated to allow the UAV to perform complex tasks within its given application.

Remote Sensing

UAV remote sensing functions include electromagnetic spectrum sensors, biological sensors, and chemical sensors. A UAV's electromagnetic sensors typically include visual spectrum, infrared, or near infrared cameras as well as radar systems. Other electromagnetic wave detectors such as microwave and ultraviolet spectrum sensors may also be used, but are uncommon. Biological sensors are sensors capable of detecting the airborne presence of various microorganisms and other biological factors. Chemical sensors use laser spectroscopy to analyze the concentrations of each element in the air.


UAVs can transport goods using various means based on the configuration of the UAV itself. Most payloads are stored in an internal payload bay somewhere in the airframe. For many helicopter configurations, external payloads can be tethered to the bottom of the airframe. With fixed wing UAVs, payloads can also be attached to the airframe, but aerodynamics of the aircraft with the payload must be assessed. For such situations, payloads are often enclosed in aerodynamic pods for transport.

Scientific Research

Unmanned aircraft are uniquely capable of penetrating areas which may be too dangerous for piloted craft. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began utilizing the Aerosonde unmanned aircraft system in 2006 as a hurricane hunter. AAI Corporation subsidiary Aerosonde Pty Ltd. of Victoria (Australia), designs and manufactures the 35-pound system, which can fly into a hurricane and communicate near-real-time data directly to the National Hurricane Center in Florida. Beyond the standard barometric pressure and temperature data typically cultivated from manned hurricane hunters, the Aerosonde system provides measurements far closer to the water’s surface than previously captured. Further applications for unmanned aircraft can be explored once solutions have been developed for their accommodation within national airspace, an issue currently under discussion by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Precision Bombing

MQ-1 Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles are now used as platforms for hitting ground targets in sensitive areas. Armed Predators were first used in late 2001 from bases in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, mostly for targeted assassinations inside Afghanistan. Since then, there were several reported cases in such assassinations taking place in Pakistan, this time from Afghan based Predators. The advantage of using a drone, rather than an manned aircraft in such cases, is to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment should the aircraft be shot down and the pilots captured, since the bombings took place in countries deemed friendly and without the official permission of those countries.[10] [11] [12] [13]

A Predator, based in a neighboring Arab country, was used to kill suspected al-Qa'ida terrorists in Yemen on November 3, 2002. This marked the first use of an armed Predator as an attack aircraft outside of a theater of war such as Afghanistan.[14]

Design and development considerations

UAV design and production is a global activity, with manufacturers all across the world. The United States and Israel were initial pioneers in this technology, and U.S. manufacturers have a market share of over 60% in 2006, with U.S. market share due to increase by 5-10% through 2016.[15] Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are the dominant manufacturers in this industry, on the strength of the Global Hawk and Predator/Mariner systems.[15] Israeli and European manufacturers form a second tier due to lower indigenous investments, and the governments of those nations have initiatives to acquire U.S. systems due to higher levels of capability.[15] European market share represented just 4% of global revenue in 2006.[15]

Degree of autonomy

File:CPonte Predator2.JPG
Rear view of a MQ-1_Predator (Reno Air Show)

Some early UAVs are called drones because they are no more sophisticated than a simple radio controlled aircraft being controlled by a human pilot (sometimes called the operator) at all times. More sophisticated versions may have built-in control and/or guidance systems to perform low level human pilot duties such as speed and flight path stabilization, and simple prescripted navigation functions such as waypoint following.

From this perspective, most early UAVs are not autonomous at all. In fact, the field of air vehicle autonomy is a recently emerging field, whose economics is largely driven by the military to develop battle ready technology. Compared to the manufacturing of UAV flight hardware, the market for autonomy technology is fairly immature and undeveloped. Because of this, autonomy has been and may continue to be the bottleneck for future UAV developments, and the overall value and rate of expansion of the future UAV market could be largely driven by advances to be made in the field of autonomy.

Autonomy technology that is important to UAV development falls under the following categories:

  • Sensor fusion: Combining information from different sensors for use on board the vehicle
  • Communications: Handling communication and coordination between multiple agents in the presence of incomplete and imperfect information
  • Path planning: Determining an optimal path for vehicle to go while meeting certain objectives and mission constraints, such as obstacles or fuel requirements
  • Trajectory Generation (sometimes called Motion planning): Determining an optimal control maneuver to take to follow a given path or to go from one location to another
  • Trajectory Regulation: The specific control strategies required to constrain a vehicle within some tolerance to a trajectory
  • Task Allocation and Scheduling: Determining the optimal distribution of tasks amongst a group of agents, with time and equipment constraints
  • Cooperative Tactics: Formulating an optimal sequence and spatial distribution of activities between agents in order to maximize chance of success in any given mission scenario

Autonomy is commonly defined as the ability to make decisions without human intervention. To that end, the goal of autonomy is to teach machines to be "smart" and act more like humans. The keen observer may associate this with the development in the field of artificial intelligence made popular in the 1980s and 1990s such as expert systems, neural networks, machine learning, natural language processing, and vision. However, the mode of technological development in the field of autonomy has mostly followed a bottom-up approach, such as hierarchical control systems[16], and recent advances have been largely driven by the practitioners in the field of control science, not computer science. Similarly, autonomy has been and probably will continue to be considered an extension of the controls field.

To some extent, the ultimate goal in the development of autonomy technology is to replace the human pilot. It remains to be seen whether future developments of autonomy technology, the perception of the technology, and most importantly, the political climate surrounding the use of such technology, will limit the development and utility of autonomy for UAV applications.

Interoperable UAV technologies became essential as systems proved their mettle in military operations, taking on tasks too challenging or dangerous for warfighters. NATO addressed the need for commonality through STANAG (Standardization Agreement) 4586. According to a NATO press release, the agreement began the ratification process in 1992. Its goal was to allow allied nations to easily share information obtained from unmanned aircraft through common ground control station technology. STANAG 4586-compliant aircraft are equipped to translate information into standardized message formats; likewise, information received from other compliant aircraft can be transferred into vehicle-specific messaging formats for seamless interoperability. Amendments have since been made to the original agreement, based on expert feedback from the field and an industry panel known as the Custodian Support Team. Edition Two of STANAG 4586 is currently under review. There are many systems available today that comply with STANAG 4586, including products by industry leaders such as AAI Corporation, CDL Systems, and Raytheon, all three of which are members of the Custodian Support Team for this protocol.


Because UAVs are not burdened with the physiological limitations of human pilots, they can be designed for maximized on-station times. The maximum flight duration of unmanned aerial vehicles varies widely. Internal combustion engine aircraft endurance depends strongly on the percentage of fuel burned as a fraction of total weight (the Breguet endurance equation), and so is largely independent of aircraft size. Solar electric UAVs hold the potential for unlimited flight, a concept championed by the Helios Prototype, which unfortunately was destroyed in a 2003 crash. One of the major problems with UAVs currently is that there is no capability for in flight refuelling. Currently the US Air Force is promoting research that should end in an inflight UAV refueling capability, which should be available by 2010.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is to sign a contract on building an UAV which should have an enourmous endurance capability - of about 5 years. The project is entitled "Vulture". The developers are certain neither on the design of the UAV nor on what fuel it should run to be able to stay in air without any maintanance for such a long period of time.[17]

Notable high endurance flights
UAV Flight time Date Notes
Boeing Condor 58 hours, 11 minutes ? The aircraft is currently in the Hiller Aviation Museum, CA.

Hiller Aviation Museum reference to the flight

QinetiQ Zephyr Solar Electric 54 hours September 2007 QinetiQ press release

New Scientist article

IAI Heron 52 hours ? NOVA PBS TV program reference

IAI reference

AC Propulsion Solar Electric 48 hours, 11 minutes June 3, 2005 AC Propulsion release describing the flight
MQ-1 Predator 40 hours, 5 minutes ? UAV Forum reference

Federation of American Scientists reference

GNAT-750 40 hours 1992 Directory of US Military Rockets and Missiles reference to the flight

UAV Endurance Prehistory reference

TAM-5 38 hours, 52 minutes August 11, 2003 Smallest UAV to cross the Atlantic

TAM Homepage

TAM-5 FAQ page

Aerosonde 38 hours, 48 minutes May 3, 2006

Aerosonde release on the flight

I-GNAT 38 hours, landed with 10 hour reserve ? General Atomics reference to the flight
RQ-4 Global Hawk 30 hours, 24 minutes ? Space Daily story on the flight

RAND Corporation report

Aerosonde "Laima" 26 hours, 45 minutes August 21, 1998 First UAV to cross the Atlantic

Aerosonde Laima page

Seattle Museum of Flight

TIHA (Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) 24 hours Prototypes: 24 December 2004 Serial Production: To be complete by 2010 TIHA Program

Turkish Aerospace Industries UAV Products

Vulture 5 years ? A DARPA project - Vulture - The Unmanned Aircraft Able to Stay in the Air for 5 Years

Existing UAV systems

UAVs have been developed and deployed by many countries around the world. For a list of models by country, see List of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Other information


See also

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External links

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Unmanned aerial vehicle".