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Unmanned aerial vehicles have lately been generating headlines as never before. When a Predator fired a Hellfire missile into a car full of suspected terrorists in Yemen last November, it seemed a watershed validation of the "hunt and destroy" role for UAVs. Days before the start of the Iraq war, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that an Iraqi UAV program uncovered by weapons inspectors could be a means for delivering biological or chemical weaponsóthough the technology was reported by The New York Times to be painfully primitive. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of American UAVs would soon be demonstrated: When U.S. troops reached Baghdad's doorstep, 10 or more types of UAV were with them, ranging from backpackable, soldier-launched recon vehicles to the warhorse Global Hawk surveillance craft and the Predator, which knocked out an anti-aircraft gun.
UAVs are here, more are coming, and they will ultimately transform aviation, military and civil. The concept is surprisingly old: In 1935, PopSci described "thrilled crowds" in England watching an RAF demonstration of a radio-controlled biplane with a 10-mile range. "Spectacular wartime possibilities are forecast" for robot aircraft, the article noted. Virtually all WWII aircraft were piloted, of course, though a German UAV program called Mistel spooked the British.
The Pentagon has spent more than $25 billion on UAV development since the 1950s, but has had trouble settling on missions and standards; programs have been repeatedly replaced or scrapped. Yet momentum is clearly on the side of UAV deployment because the relevant technologies are finally able to address the challenges of onboard intelligence, weight vs. power, and autonomy vs. remote control. New composite materials make it possible for UAVs to be durable yet lightweight. Sensors have shrunk and become more powerful. Satellite communications provide more of the broadband power that's required for complex, real-time operations.