Aerial Assassins: Drones

What is a Drone? – “Drones” are probably the most advanced equipment in the field of robotics, aeronautics and electronics. The technical name of drones is “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAVs). They are aerial vehicles which come in wide varieties of sizes, shapes and functions, which are controlled either by remote or control systems from the ground. They are generally used to carry out tasks in which manned flight is considered to be risky. Drones mostly find use in military services, but are now days finding use in various civilian operations such as search and rescue, weather analysis etc. They are known for their “precision” and “stealth” features. Drones have carried out monumental tasks in preventing terrorist attacks and capturing important Taliban leaders, including the surveillance of the infamous “Osama Bin Laden”.

Drone: MQ-9 Reaper

MQ-9 Reaper (Image source: Wikipedia)

How Do They Work?

First let us look at the construction of a drone. A typical drone is made of light composite materials to reduce weight and increase manoeuvrability. Also, the composite material strength allows it to cruise at extremely high altitudes. They are equipped with state of the art infra-red cameras, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), laser or GPS guided missiles and other top secret systems. They can be either controlled by remotes or a ground cockpit. Drones come in a wide variety of sizes, some which can be launched by hand to some which require short runways. A UAV system has two parts, the drone itself and the control system. The plane is controlled from the ground by trained combat pilots or programmers. The surveillance data is sent to satellites from which it is received by the ground forces to form the attack strategies and vulnerable areas in the enemy’s camp. Drones can fly at extremely high altitudes to avoid detection. Along with all these features, comes a heavy price tag. A military drone along with the control system costs about 50 million US dollars.


The nose of the drone is where all the sensors and navigational systems are present. The rest of the body is complete innovation since there is no loss for space to accommodate humans and also light weight. The engineering materials used to build the drone are highly complex composites which can absorb vibration which decreases the noise produced. They can be equipped with missiles to exterminate targets or to provide support to the ground forces.

Drone which can be launched by hand

Drone which can be launched by hand (Image source: Wikipedia)

The most popular drones today are of the US Armed Forces, the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1B Predator. In fact, they played a key role in gathering intelligence to the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. The MQ 1B Predator is more of a surveillance and intelligence gathering drone; it was not made for hunting unlike its comrade, the MQ – 9 Reaper which can carry up to four hellfire missiles (standard attack missiles of the USAF) or laser guided missiles. The reaper is also less vulnerable to ground attacks when it flies at low altitudes since it is faster than the predator.


Predator launching a Hellfire missile

Predator launching a Hellfire missile (Image source: Wikipedia)

Applications of the “Drone”

When it was developed, the drone was meant to carry out surveillance and intelligence operations. Since it had removed the “human sacrifice” factor, it found further importance in other fields which involved risking human lives such as, search and rescue, to locate defects in a structure, to locate bombs. Today, an army which has a fleet of drones is considered to have the upper hand. If we look at the key uses of drones they can be listed as follows:

  • To provide intelligence and tactical support
  • To check for bombs and dangerous devices on roads and landing areas
  • To hack into phone lines or computers to gather information
  • To observe traffic and public behaviour
  • To provide air support
  • To follow or attack suspicious targets


Future of the Drones:

New applications are coming into picture as the work efficiency and tolerance capacity of the drones have surpassed all expectations. The USA and British are the prominent figures in UAV development. Recently India has also joined the picture by releasing its own drones.


Developments and modifications are constantly being done on the structure and internal electronics. The new “helicopter drone” released by the US army carries a 1.8 giga pixel camera to provide clear ground images even from high altitudes. The sensors carried in the drones are also being made sharper to provide higher aerial surveillance. Programming software of the drone is being developed such that the drone can take its own decision in situations where human error is probable. The USA has constantly been utilizing their fleet of drones over Pakistan and Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism.

FLIR camera mounted on an UAV

A forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera mounted on the side of an UAV (Image source: Wikipedia)


Drones have always risen to the occasion whenever they were needed. They are truly an engineering spectacle, containing the best of mechanical, electronics and software technology. There just might be a day when today’s generation tells their grandchildren that aircrafts were manned by human pilots.

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