Drone usage is rapidly increasing throughout the world. From 2005 until present day, the number of countries operating these platforms nearly doubled. This trend is only going to continue, if not accelerate, but all drones are not created equal. There is a massive variation in physical structure, capabilities and the systems that these platforms operate within.
When most people hear the word drone, they commonly think of a U.S.-operated Predator and associate it with its targeted strike capabilities. This represents a very small niche in reality, and overlooks several key basic facts. First, "drone" is a colloquial term that has been widely adopted, but unmanned aerial vehicle (commonly shortened to UAV) is a more specific and accurate term.
Second, it is important to understand that UAVs are actually a subset of the broader category of unmanned vehicles that operate on land, below the ocean, on its surface and in space. So UAVs are currently the most prominent and advanced in military utility, but other subsets such as unmanned underwater vehicles are being developed, tested and adopted quickly into forces as well.
UAVs can be as small as an insect to as large as a 737 airliner, and their capabilities are nearly as diverse. ISR — intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — continues to be the primary role for a majority of UAVs worldwide, but they can take on a wide array of other sensors and various munitions as well. As of now, the UAV’s primary advantage over modern military aircraft is its ability to loiter over a specific area for long durations. Most UAVs are slow, easy to see and nearly defenseless. They do not operate well in denied airspace.
UAV operations are all about data. Everything its sensors see must get to the controller, and every command the controller gives must get to the drone. Getting this data across space requires infrastructure. In its simplest form, this can be an advanced remote control, but this means you have a very limited operational range. In more advanced versions, portable ground stations can be set up with powerful transmitters and antennas that extend this reach. In the most advanced versions, complex data systems and space-based satellites can be networked and used to project data over vast distances.
UAVs also have to be forward deployed near potential target areas, need maintenance and require fuel like any other aircraft. This requires logistics networks and access to airfields. If one wants to have UAVs available all over the world, they need a global footprint. Most states are constrained in the range of their UAVs because they have a regional military presence at best. Only the United States has a truly global military footprint currently.
It is the combination of this global footprint, capable UAVs and a huge facilitating IT infrastructure that allows the United States to have the pre-eminent UAV system. No other country has this combination of abilities yet. So while many countries are now operating UAVs and drone sales have become a common part of arms deals, most are simple systems that are very limited. Some countries, most notably China, are quickly building out their UAV fleets and supporting infrastructure.
UAVs — and all unmanned systems, for that matter — are going to continue to play an ever-increasing role. The next big step is replacing some of the capabilities of current manned platforms, demonstrated by the recent test of the X-47B off of a carrier deck. As their utility has grown, designers have also started to build in better survivability traits, such as stealth, so they can operate in denied air space.
Other technologies are being pursued as well to make them even more efficient. One such example is the development of cooperative or swarm behavior. When it is finally completely functional, UAVs could be semi-autonomous in their actions while working in a group. This means a single operator could operate multiple vehicles while just giving them general directions.
In the future, mother ships, such as the newly retrofitted USS Ponce, could be sent to conflict zones, where they would launch and support fleets of unmanned vehicles with multiple capabilities. An entire battle group could be managed by a handful of personnel. In the meantime, UAVs will continue to become a staple of many countries' force structures.