How Unmanned Drone Aircraft Work (Infographic)

Infographic: How unmanned drone aircraft work.
Drones are now being used by all sorts of military and civilian organizations. (Image credit: Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are remote-controlled aircraft that can carry cameras, sensors and weapons over enemy territory. The decade since 9/11 has seen these remote aircraft increase in prominence from speculative prototypes to America’s primary counterterrorism weapon.

With a range of 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers), the largest drone, Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, cruises at high altitude, loitering over an area for up to 30 hours. The drone produces high-quality surveillance images using its suite of sensors.

The Global Hawk’s Allison Rolls-Royce turbofan engine has 7,050 lb (3,200 kg) thrust. A sensor suite includes synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical sensors and infrared sensors.

At the other end of the size spectrum, the RQ-11 Raven is so tiny, a soldier can heave it into the air one-handed. Once airborne, the Raven has a range of 7.45 miles (12 km). Future drones could be the size of a hummingbird or even an insect.

Drone Timeline:

Oct. 7, 2001: The first armed Predator drones begin flying missions over Afghanistan less than a month after 9/11. By March 2002, Drones would begin providing close air support for troops on the ground.

Nov. 3, 2002: A CIA-operated Predator drone launched a Hellfire missile at a car carrying five al-Qaida members. It was the first drone assassination in what would become a decadelong campaign.

Dec. 23, 2002: A Predator drone fires a sidewinder missile at an Iraqi fighter plane in the No Fly Zone. This is the first instance of air-to-air combat with a drone. During the surge in 2007, drone surveillance would significantly reduce the number of roadside bomb attacks.

May 7, 2004: The CIA begins a covert drone bombing campaign in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Over the next four years, President George Bush would order 42 more drone strikes in the region. From 2008 to 2011, President Barack Obama has ordered at least 180 strikes. Some estimates put the death toll from the campaign at close to 2,000.

Late 2004: The U.S. Border Patrol begins testing UAVs for patrolling the U.S./Mexico border. In 2009, the U.S. begins flying drones inside of Mexican airspace in support of Mexican government antidrug cartel operations.

Late 2009: U.S. begins drone flights off of Somalia to monitor and deter pirates. In June 2011, the U.S. begins basing drones at the Mogadishu airport and launching drone missile strikes within Somalia against al-Shabab militants linked to al-Qaida.

April 21, 2011: President Obama approves the use of drones in support of the Libyan rebels. The drones destroy Qaddafi air defenses in advance of the NATO bombing campaign, and provide targeting and support for NATO allies during the war. Operations in Libya also feature the first use of drone helicopters in combat.

Jan. 25, 2011: A Texas Department of Public Safety SWAT team deploys a small drone during a raid on a drug stash house. This marks the first use of UAVs for domestic surveillance.

Karl Tate
LiveScience Infographic Artist
Karl has been Purch's infographics specialist across all editorial properties since 2010.  Before joining Purch, Karl spent 11 years at the New York headquarters of The Associated Press, creating news graphics for use around the world in newspapers and on the web.  He has a degree in graphic design from Louisiana State University.