Q. What types of drones are or will be available?

As mentioned above, the attribute that unifies drones is that they are all remotely piloted. Beyond those similarities, the differences are vast. They vary enormously in terms of size, capability, and range. Some are semiautonomous, meaning they rely on a human in some fashion—even if remotely. Others are autonomous, in which case the system is preprogrammed and based on the artificial intelligence of the robot making decisions. Some are armed; others are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Some are hand-launched; others can take off and land by themselves from an airfield. Given the large range of aircraft that can plausibly fit under the heading of drones, it is not surprising that there are many ways to categorize them.

The main international institution that regulates drones is the MTCR, a 1987 regime that sought to limit proliferation of nuclear delivery vehicles, including drones. Drones with a payload of over 1,102 lb. and a range of 186 miles or greater were classified as Category I systems. This includes Global Hawk drones, which are only used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and armed Predators and Reapers, which have been used in combat in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia, among other countries, and are seen as being more capacious and therefore only able to be licensed for export on rare occasions. Category II systems include materials that are less sensitive but still capable of covering a range of 186 miles, irrespective of payload, and have less stringent export prohibitions. An example includes Iran's Ababil, a reconnaissance, surveillance, and attack aircraft that has a payload of 40 kg (or about 88 lb.) and is thought to be the system exported to Hezbollah and potentially Venezuela.13 Some drones fall outside the MTCR altogether—meaning they can be exported without any scrutiny—and these include smaller-scale, limited-range drones, or smaller drones that are designed for one-way missions.

While the MTCR classification focuses primarily on payload and range, a related categorization is to organize by capacity, an aggregation of dimensions such as altitude, range, and endurance, which tends to correlate with the type of mission or operation that the drone could carry out. These categories include mini, tactical, and strategic drones, depicted in Table 2.1 and drawn from the 2012 Government Accountability Office report on drone proliferation.14

Table 2.1 Categories of Drones Organized by a Combination of Altitude, Range, and Endurance







Low to medium

Medium to high


Short (about an hour)

Medium (up to several hours)

Long (ranges from hours to days)



Limited to line-of-sight (approximately 300 kilometers or less) (about 186 miles)

Long range


Source: CIA (information); DOD (photos).

Nonproliferation: Agencies Could Improve Information Sharing and End-Use Monitoring on Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Exports. United States Government Accountability Office, July 2012

Mini-drones are designed for quick deployment and easy mobility, making them ideal for reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition. These drones include the Raven, which the manufacturer (AeroVironment) reported in 2015 is "the most widely used unmanned aircraft system in the world today." These systems are launched by hand and powered by an electric motor, and have the capability to be operated remotely or operated autonomously using global positioning system (GPS) navigation. Because they do not require intricate support systems, mini-drones are ideal for supporting forward-deployed units within the army.

Tactical drones are designed for reconnaissance, battle damage assessment, surveillance, and target acquisition; they are launched from a pneumatic catapult mounted on a trailer and recovered with equipment meant to decelerate the drone as it lands. One of the most common examples of the tactical drone is the Shadow, which the US military had planned to weaponize contingent on having sufficient funds.15

Strategic drones are used for many of the same purposes as tactical drones but are able to fly higher, farther, and for longer periods of time. Strategic drones include the Global Hawk, the Predator B, and its successor, the Reaper, which has a large number of functions including reconnaissance, surveillance, weapons delivery, and targeting, and can fly for over 30 hours without refueling.

The Rand Corporation has yet another classification system, organizing drones into four categories based on a two- by-two matrix describing whether the technology is long or short range and high or low technology: (1) long-range, high- technology such as the Predator or Reaper; (2) long-range, low-technology such as the Iranian Ababil; (3) short-range, high-technology such as the Raven; and (4) short-range, low- technology such as model airplanes.16

Another way to think of the differences across drones would be based on function. The typologies above tend to group nonlethal and lethal drones together; for example, the

Global Hawk and Reaper would both be considered strategic or Category I drones. Treating these two types of drones in the same category is potentially misguided given the quite different uses of each: the Global Hawk is used for reconnaissance and the Reaper for killing terrorists. A classification that would address the broad, different uses might instead consider drones used in the service of surveillance and reconnaissance (not directly lethal) and those that are equipped with weapons and used directly for lethal purposes, while also taking into account range. Other typologies have therefore built on this distinction between lethal and nonlethal drones, classifying drones into 1) tactical drones that are smaller-scale drones such has the Raven and Shadow; 2) advanced, unarmed drones such as the Global Hawk; and 3) advanced, armed drones such as the Predator and Reaper.17

The various typologies of drones are useful because they put the threat of drones and drone proliferation into context. For example, the General Accountability Office released a report in 2012 showing that 76 countries had acquired drones by 2011, compared to just 41 in 2005; the conclusion one should not reach is that these are all armed Reapers capable of eliminating terrorists at long range.18 Rather, most of these countries make it onto the GAO's list simply because they have tactical drones that have limited range and nonlethal capability that would present few regional security consequences. Only a handful of countries have lethal strategic drones. This helps put the potential threat of drones into perspective, making it less consequential than it might initially seem on its face.

Moreover, since few of those 76 countries have advanced armed drones, it puts the proliferation challenge in perspective. If all of these countries had already acquired advanced armed drones, then it would make little sense to have a restrictive set of transfer or export policies. But the fact that the most advanced armed drones have been out of reach for most countries suggests considerable merit to a system that keeps close hold at least over the types of armed drones that do pose threats to international and regional security. Those proliferation questions receive careful treatment later in the book.

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