Everything You Need to Know About Military Drones

Last updated December 13th, 2019
A soldier in a field

Drones and the military have a long and storied history, one that goes back to the very first unmanned aerial assault, launched in 1849 by the Austrian army against Venice.

Throughout the 20th century, this relationship continued to evolve and advance as drones became a more integral part of any top military setup.

By January 2014, the US military operated a large number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): 7362 RQ-11 Ravens; 1137 AeroVironment RQ-20 Pumas; 990 AeroVironment Wasp IIIs; 306 RQ-16 T-Hawks; 246 MQ-1 Predators; 246 MQ-1C Grey Eagles; 126 MQ-9 Reapers; 491 RQ-7 Shadows; and 33 RQ-4 Global Hawk. These had a wide range of use cases.

Today, there is a vibrant market for military drones that is dominated by companies based in the United States and Israel. The US bought over 60% of the military drones in the world according to sales data published in 2017.

The Top 5 Military Drone Manufacturers

  • General Atomics
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Boeing
  • CASC

The first 4 of these military manufacturers are American, whereas CASC is Chinese. General Atomics remains the most influential manufacturer with the Global Hawk and Predator/Mariner systems product-line. They hold more than a third of the military drone market.

Who Exports the Most Military Drones?

Israeli military drone manufacturers tend to focus on small surveillance UAV systems. And going by quantity of drones exported, Israel companies have the lion’s share at 60.7%, while the US exports 23.9%.

Who Imports the Most Military Drones?

Top importers of military drones include the United Kingdom (33.9%) and India (13.2%).

What Drones Do the Military Use?

Today, about 90 countries have drones in their military arsenal. But only 11 of these militaries use armed drones — the others are surveillance-only.

Since the beginning of the drone race, 10 drone types have stood out as favorites across the board because of their payload capacity and weapons on board.

We take a look at them below, ranked from bottom to top:

  • TAI Anka: The Tai Anka can be armed with Rokestan smart micro munition (MAM-L), laser-guided CIRIT 2.75 inch rocket, and an air-launched missile launcher.
  • MQ-5B Hunter: The MQ-5B Hunter can be equipped with external weapons such as the Northrop Grumman Viper Strike laser-guided munition.
  • CAIG Wing Loong II: CAIG Wing Loong II is being used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
  • MQ-1C Gray Eagle: The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is able to carry four Hellfire missiles.
  • Yabhon United 40: The Yabhon United 40 has four under-wing pods meant to carry ammunition.
  • CH-5: The CH-5 UAV has a maximum take-off weight of 3,300kg.
  • Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper): The Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) can carry an external payload of 1,361kg.
  • MQ-9B SkyGuardian: The MQ-9B SkyGuardian can be loaded with laser-guided bombs and, or including, AGM114 Hellfire missiles.
  • Heron TP: The Heron TP drone can take a maximum payload capacity of 2,700kg.
  • Predator C Avenger: The Predator C Avenger can carry Hellfire missiles and guided bombs and ammunition.

These are ranked in ascending order, with the Predator C Avenger being at the very top. Interestingly, 4 out of the top military drones are manufactured by the same company: General Atomics.

What Are the Features of These Drones?

TAI Anka

The Anka drone has been in use in the Turkish Air Force as from 2017. Designed and manufactured by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), this drone is built to meet key objectives of the Turkish Armed Forces. These include: reconnaissance, target recognition, surveillance, and detection.

The maximum payload capacity which the Anka drone can handle is a whopping 200 kilograms, and this includes an identification friend or foe (IFF) system, a laser designator, a laser finder, as well as weapon payloads like Rokestan smart micro munition (MAM-L), air launched missile launcher, and laser-guided CIRIT 2.75 inch rocket.

The TAI Anka is runs on a 150 horse power turboprop PD170 engine which was created by Turkish Engine Industries (TEI). This engine has a total takeoff weight of 1600kg, can power flights up to an altitude of 30,000ft, and can last in the air for more than 24 hours.

MQ-5B Hunter

The MQ-5B Hunter was developed by the American drone company, Northrop Grumman, and it is a multi-mission unmanned aircraft that has been part and parcel of the US military arsenal for the last two decades.

The MQ-5B Hunter was developed by the American drone company, Northrop Grumman, and it is a versatile drone that is capable of multiple types of missions, and has been part and parcel of the US military arsenal for the last twenty years.

The lasting presence of the MQ-5B Hunter in the US military is mainly due to the fact that it consistently meets all standards set by the US Department of Defense.

The Hunter drone is able to carry a total payload of 226.8 kilograms. It can be loaded with many different sensors like electro-optical (EO)/Infrared (IR) sensors, as well as communication software.

In addition to sensors, it can also carry external weapons like the Northrop Grumman Viper Strike laser guided munition.

The Hunter drone is runs on an engine dependent on heavy fuel, which gives it a maximum takeoff weight of 884.50 kilograms and allows it to fly as high as 18,000ft.

This military drone can fly as fast as 120km/h and operate for 21 hours straight in the air. The larger version of the MQ-5B, which is the MQ-5C e-Hunter can stay in the air for up to 30 hours.

CAIG Wing Loong II

The CAID Wing Loong II military drone was designed and manufactured by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). It is the high-tech upgrade of the Wing Loong I.

The Wing Loong II is used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

Built for surveillance, exploring, and to deliver aerial strikes, the Wing Loong can carry a total additional payload of 480 kilograms.

It can be equipped with up to 12 laser-guided missiles, including FT-9/50 bombs, GB3 250kg laser-guided bombs, and TL-10 missiles.

This military drone can be described as a medium-altitude, long endurance aircraft, capable of flying for 32 hours. It can reach a highest speed of 199km/h, has a total takeoff weight of 4,200kg, and can operate at heights up to 32,480 ft.

MQ-1C Gray Eagle

The MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system
was designed and developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems as part of abroad sweeping modernization effort by US Army Aviation.

The drone is used for various mission objectives including surveillance and acquiring targets.

The MQ-1C is designed to carry a maximum  payload of 488 kilograms and this includes its full tank and additional payload carrying capacities which are 261kg and 227kgrespectively.

The combat drone version of this drone can carry four hellfire missiles. Additional payloads it can carry are EO/IR sensors, synthetic aperture radar systems, and communication relay sensors.

The MQ-1C is powered by a Thielert 165 HP engine which runs on heavy fuel, and this gives it a total take-off weight of 1,633
kilograms. It can fly up to an altitude of 29,000 feet and travel at a highest speed of 167km/h respectively.

In addition to that, it has a total uninterrupted flight time of 25 hours, but an upgraded range version exists that boasts a flight time of 40 hours.

Yabhon United 40

The Yabhon United 40 medium–altitude, long endurance aircraft is otherwise known as Smart Eye 2. It is designed and manufactured by the UAE-based drone manufacturer ADCOM Systems.

This drone is used by the Algerian Army, hence the local nickname Algeria 54.

This is a multi-mission military drone that can easily carry a total  payload of 1000kilograms. And this includes sensors and surveillance software and
hardware  like camera and visual systems, synthetic aperture radar, and also sonar.

The Yabhon United 40 has four spaces under the wing for carrying weapons that weigh up to about 400kg. Provisions also exit for more payload near the belly of the fuselage.

This military drone runs on a turbine-electric propulsion system that enables it to fly as fast as 118km/h. It can also remain aloft for up to 120 hours. At takeoff, its maximum permissible weight is 1,500 kilograms.

CH-5

The CH-5 military drone, otherwise known as Rainbow UAV, is manufactured by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

This unmanned aerial vehicle was unveiled for the first time in November of 2016 and bears a lot of resemblance to the US-manufactured MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The CH-5 is able to carry out many types of combat missions including exploration, spying, patrolling, and target position acquisition. It boasts a maximum takeoff capacity of 3,300kg and can carry a payload of 1,200kg.

The hard-points on each of this drone’s wings can be equipped with a quad pack of AR-2 SAL guided anti-armor bombs and a couple of twin-packs of AR-1 SAL bombs.

The CH-5 runs on a 330 HP single engine that enables it to reach speeds of 118km/hour, as well as allow it to stay airborne for up to 60 hours.

Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper)

The Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) unmanned aerial system is used by the US Air Force, NASA, the Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force, and the Spanish Air Force.

The Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) unmanned aerial system is used by the US Air Force, the Royal Air Force, NASA, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force, and the Spanish Air Force.

It was designed and developed by General Atomics, and it is built to meet up with the STANAG 4671 NATO standards.

The Predator B military drone is two times as fast as its predecessor, the Predator, and it can carry 500% more weight than its predecessor could.

It is able to reach maximum altitudes of 50,000 feet and has a highest speed of 240km/hour. It can remain airborne for up to 27 hours.

This military drone runs on a Honeywell TPE331-10 turbopop engine, which enables it to lift a total payload of 1,746 kilograms including an additional payload of 1361kg.

It is able to carry varied payloads like EO/IR systems, Lynx multi-mode radar, multi-mode maritime surveillance radar, electronic measures (ESM), and laser designators.

The Predator B can also be equipped with various weapons capabilities like the GM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II bombs, and a GBU-JDAM kit.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian

The MQ-9B SkyGuardian is set to enter duty with the Royal Air Force under the Protector RG Mk 1 program scheduled for 2020.

The manufacturer behind this UAV is General Atomics, and it is
designed to comply with NATO STANAG 4671 UAV system airworthiness requirements and the UK Def Stan 00-970 design and airworthiness standards.

This military drone has a highest takeoff weight of 5,670 kilograms and
sports nine payload berths, capable of holding up to 1,814kg of payload.

The MQ-9B SkyGuardian can carry payloads meant for combat such as 500lb GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided missiles and also AGM114 Hellfire bombs

It also has a ‘Features Detect and Avoid System’ (DAA) incorporated by the manufacturers. It can fly at altitudes that exceed 40,000 feet, and reach  speeds of 210 km/hour. The MQ-9B can also stay operational in the air for more than 40 hours uninterrupted.

Heron TP

The Heron TP, otherwise known as Eitan, is an autonomous taxi-takeoff and landing drone that is designed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries.

This military drone lies among the arsenal of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

It is capable of carrying a payload of up to 2,700 kilograms, and this includes multiple mission tools like synthetic aperture radar, global systems for mobile communications, and communication intelligence sensors. Its’ payload also includes combat-specific cargo such as guided missiles and air-to-ground weapons

The Heron TP’s powerhouse is a single Pratt and Whitney PT-6A 1,200 bhp engine, which enables the drone to fly for over 30 hours at a top speed of 220 km/hour. It also enables this military drone to lift 5,670kg of maximum payload.

Predator C Avenger

The Predator C Avenger is a drone that is piloted remotely, manufactured by General Atomics. It has been around for a while; it’s first flight was carried out in April 2009. And it tops our list because it can carry a highest payload of 8,255 kilograms.

The payload of the Predator C Avenger consists of varied sensor cargo
attached to designated points on its wings. On the other hand, its internal
weapons berth can carry precision weapons and large sensor systems that weigh up to 1,588kg.

The total payload which this military drone itself can carry is 2948kg. Its
weapon cargo includes Hellfire bombs, guided bomb units (GBU)-12/49,
laser-guided bombs, GBU-31, GBU-32, GBU-38, GBU-39, GBU-16/48, and 38 joint direct attack munitions (JDAM).

The Predator C Avenger is capable of better operational and transit
capabilities than the Predator B drone. Its engine is the Pratt and Whitney
PW545B Turbofan, enabling the military drone to reach altitudes of about 50,000 feet.

It boasts a top speed of 400km/hour and has a flight time of 20 hours.

 

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