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Game of Drones: the history and present of military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


Warfare has always been subject to change, as new inventions are implemented in war to gain an advantage over the enemy. The latest of such battlefield-altering inventions after the creation of the firearm, the tank and the airplane is the combat drone. These weapon systems have enjoyed a lot of news coverage lately because of the war in Ukraine especially, but they would never have come to be without the creation of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) first. All drones can be called UAV’s these days, but not all UAVs are drones, as the first UAV to be created was the hot-air balloon, which dates back to 1783.

This invention saw its first military use with the creation of the balloon bomb in 1849, but it was not very successful. With the start of the 20th century came the invention of the airplane in 1903, which lead to the creation of the Kettering Aerial Torpedo in 1917. This weapon can be described best as a torpedo with an engine-powered propeller at the front and wings that would detach once it had flown a pre-determined distance. The weapon would then fall from the sky and its 72kg payload would explode once it hit the ground. The first radio-controlled version of this weapon saw its first use in 1937, but before that came the creation of a radio-controlled aircraft that the British RAF developed for aerial target practice. This aircraft, the De Havilland DH.82B Queen Bee is considered to be the first UAV that can also be called a drone and was created in 1935.

The next big step in drone development occurred in 1944 with the Aphrodite program from Boeing and the US Air Force. This program involved the conversion of battle-tested B-17 bomber planes into drones filled with 9000 kg of explosives, and were designated as BQ-7’s. These drones would be manned by a crew of two for take-off, and once at cruising altitude and roughly pointing in the direction of the target the crew would bail-out by parachute after engaging the remote-control system and setting the fuse. Once unmanned, the BQ-7 would be controlled from another B-17 that was modified to CQ-4 configuration, which would fly along with the BQ-7 until the target had been reached. The controls of the BQ-7 would then be locked into a downward trajectory towards its target. Some of these BQ-7’s were also outfitted with a TV camera in the nose that transmitted these images to the CQ-4, which meant that having to visually track the drone was no-longer necessary. Despite aiding towards the development of the drones used today, the BQ-7 program was still short-lived because the technology available at the time was not up to the task. On the other hand, the BQ-7 was the first drone that could be flown from First-Person View (FPV), which has become the standard for most military drones used today.

The next big step in drone development came with the creation of the Israelian Mastiff and IAI Scout series of UAVs that were meant for surveillance and scouting purposes. These drones went on to make a considerable difference in the Battle of Jezzine between Israel and Syria in 1982, which finally proved to the world how useful UAV’s could be in warfare.

The American answer to these surveillance drones came around 1989 with the GNAT-750 surveillance drone from defense contractor General Atomics. This contractor was then tasked by the Pentagon to create an upgraded version of this surveillance drone in 1994, which they did successfully. This drone became known as the MQ-1 Predator, which is the predecessor of the Predator C Avenger that is said to be at the cutting-edge of combat drone technology in 2022, Followed suit by Israel’s IAI Heron TP.

Despite it being likely that drones are the future of military flying and are seen as being very modern, it is baffling to know that the first one took flight 87 years ago.

New drones are still being developed in an effort to stay on top of the competition, with one of the most recent ones being the Iranian Shahed 136. This drone is a loitering munition autonomous swarm pusher-prop aerial drone, which is a very long name for what could also be called a kamikaze drone. The Shahed 136 has been in service since 2021 and has been created with a very different philosophy in mind compared to the Predator C Avenger and Heron TP. These drones can be reused, fulfill multiple roles, and the Heron TP for instance, costs $140 million per unit. Kamikaze drones like the Shahed 136 on the other hand, can only be used once and for a single goal only. These drones are way simpler than combat and surveillance drones, which is reflected in the price, because a Shahed 136 drone does not cost more than $60.000 per unit.

Russia has been deploying these Iranian drones in Ukraine since September 2022 in an effort to demoralize the Ukrainian population into surrender, but the war rages on as Ukraine continues to fight for its sovereignty. According to a New York Times article, Ukraine is currently using a counter-drone strategy that has proven to be more successful than expected. They shoot them down with fighter jets where they can, but they have two alternatives. The first alternative involves launching a surface-to-air missile at the drone, and the second alternative is having soldiers shoot them down with machine guns. The big issue for Ukraine now is the fact that these drones are difficult to detect, because on radar they can easily be confused with trucks on a highway or migrating birds. It may be difficult to do, but they are now routinely shooting down over 70 percent of the dozens of drones which Russia deploys every day.

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