10 Things You Didn't Know About Drones

When drones were created, how they're used, and what their future looks like.

1. The first armed drones were created to get Osama bin Laden.
In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration shut down an operation to kill the al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan with cruise missiles, given collateral damage estimates of 300 casualties and only 50 percent confidence in the intelligence. As the 9/11 Commission noted, "After this episode Pentagon planners intensified efforts to find a more precise alternative." In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. Air Force struggled to reconfigure a Hellfire anti-tank missile to fit onto a Predator surveillance drone. Meeting one week before the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Council agreed that the armed Predator was not ready to be operationally deployed. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in November 2001, when a Predator targeted Mohammed Atef, a top al Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan.

2. So far, drones tend to crash.
On Dec. 4, an RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone crashed in Iran; a U.S. official involved in the program blamed a lost data link and another unspecific malfunction. Two weeks later, an unarmed Reaper drone crashed at the end of a runway in the Seychelles. "This should not be a surprise," a defense official told Aviation Week & Space Technology, saying the United States had already lost more than 50 drones. As of July 2010, the Air Force had identified 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each. The primary reasons for the crashes: bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and "human error factors," according to the Air Force. As Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, has noted with refreshing honesty, "Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they'll start falling from the sky like rain."

3. Drones are coming to America.
Worried about the militarization of U.S. airspace by unmanned aerial vehicles? As of October, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had reportedly issued 285 active certificates for 85 users, covering 82 drone types. The FAA has refused to say who received the clearances, but it was estimated over a year ago that 35 percent were held by the Pentagon, 11 percent by NASA, and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And it's growing. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already operates eight Predator drones. Under pressure from the congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus -- yes, there's already a drone lobby, with 50 members -- two additional Predators were sent to Texas in the fall, though a DHS official noted: "We didn't ask for them." Last June, a Predator drone intended to patrol the U.S.-Canada border helped locate three suspected cattle rustlers in North Dakota in what was the first reported use of a drone to arrest U.S. citizens.

4. The scope of U.S. military drone missions is expanding…
Drones have come a long way in little more than a decade of military use in strike operations. Five-pound backpack drones are now used by infantry soldiers for tactical surveillance and will soon be deployed for what their manufacturer calls "magic bullet" kamikaze missions. Special operations forces have developed a warhead fired from a Predator drone that can knock down doors. K-Max helicopter drones transport supplies to troops at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Balloons unleash Tempest drones, which then send out smaller surveillance drones -- called Cicadas -- that glide to the ground to collect data. And now the U.S. State Department is flying a small fleet of surveillance drones over Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy there. Bottom line: More and more drones have been rushed into service, and their use and application by the U.S. military is seemingly infinite.

5.But not as fast as civilian uses.
Safety inspectors used drones at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to survey the damage after last year's tsunami. Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones with infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Environmental activists use the Osprey drone to track and monitor Japanese whaling ships. Photographers are developing a celebrity-seeking paparazzi drone. GALE drones will soon fly into hurricanes to more accurately monitor a storm's strength. And Boeing engineers have joined forces with MIT students to build an iPhone app that can control a drone from up to 3,000 miles away. Last summer, using a laser 3-D printer, University of Southampton engineers built a nearly silent drone that can be assembled by hand in minutes.

6. Most military drones don't bomb.
Although decapitation strikes may get all the headlines, the vast majority of the time, drones are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance -- what the military calls ISR. The U.S. Navy's first high-altitude drone can relay black-and-white photos covering roughly half the Persian Gulf; the Global Hawk's advanced radars make detailed images of the Earth and attempt to sniff out chemical or biological agents for telltale signs of weapons of mass destruction. Soon, the Gorgon Stare drone will "be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything," according to Maj. Gen. James O. Poss.

7. Attack drones require more boots on the ground.
Most unmanned aircraft flown by the U.S. military require not just a ground-based "pilot," but also a platoon of surveillance analysts (approximately 19 per drone), sensor operators, and a maintenance crew. Some 168 people are required to keep a Predator drone aloft -- and 180 for its larger cousin, the Reaper -- compared with roughly 100 people for an F-16 fighter jet. To keep up with the demand, the Air Force has trained more drone operators than pilots for the past two years. The upside is that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, drones "are usually less expensive than manned aircraft" ($15 million for a Global Hawk versus about $55 million for a new F-16), though costly sensors and excessive crashes can negate the difference.

8. Drones are becoming a lethal weapon of choice, but nobody's in charge.
Over the past decade, there have been some 300 drone strikes outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Of these attacks, 95 percent occurred in Pakistan, with the rest in Yemen and Somalia; cumulatively, they have killed more than 2,000 suspected militants and an unknown number of civilians. Although U.S. President Barack Obama recently acknowledged that "a lot of these strikes" have been in Pakistan's tribal areas, who can be targeted and under what authority can only be guessed from a few speeches and statements by anonymous U.S. officials. There are believed to be multiple drone-target "kill lists" among government agencies. The 2011 book Top Secret America revealed "three separate 'kill lists' of individuals" kept by the National Security Council, the CIA, and the military's Joint Special Operations Command. In Yemen, the Pentagon is the lead executive authority for some drone strikes (which are reported to the congressional armed services committees), while the CIA is in charge for others (reported to the intelligence committees). As for the Obama administration's claimed power to assassinate U.S. citizens, such as Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the Justice Department refuses to declassify the memo that provided the legal authority to kill him with a drone. So, although 85 percent of non-battlefield drone strikes have occurred under Obama, we have little understanding of their use.

9. Other countries are catching up to the United States.
As with most military programs, the United States is far and away the leader in developing drone technology, and the country is projected to account for 77 percent of drone R&D and 69 percent of procurement in the coming decade. Nevertheless, estimates of how many other countries have at least some drone capability now range from 44 to 70, for an estimated 680 drone programs around the world, up greatly from 195 in 2005. China is escalating its drone program, with at least 25 types of systems in development. Iran has also touted its program, including the armed "Ambassador of Death" drone, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled by declaring: "Its main message is peace and friendship."

10. The drone future is already here.
The Pentagon now boasts a fleet of approximately 7,500 drones, up from just 50 a decade ago. According to a congressional report, "manned aircraft have gone from 95% of all [Defense Department] aircraft in 2005 to 69% today." Over the next decade, the Pentagon expects the number of "multirole" drones -- ones that can both spy and strike -- to nearly quadruple, to 536. In 2011, the Teal Group consulting firm estimated that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will nearly double over the next decade from $5.9 billion to $11.3 billion annually. In the future, drones are projected to: hover just behind infantry soldiers to watch their backs; carry airborne lasers to intercept ballistic missiles; perform aerial refueling; and conduct long-range strategic bombing missions. Given that drones will become cheaper, smaller, faster, stealthier, more lethal, and more autonomous, it is harder to imagine what they won't do than what they will. Whatever limits drones face will be imposed by us humans -- not technology.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Iran's Revolutionary Guard website via EPA

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

George Rolhmaller/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

National Security

Iran Has America's Super Spy Drone. So What?

Getting caught every once in a while is all part of the intelligence game.

On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 surveillance plane was downed by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile over the Sverdlovsk area of the Soviet Union. The U-2's mission -- code-named Operation Grand Slam -- was to photograph Soviet ballistic missile sites to inform the missile-gap debate raging in Washington. Though Grand Slam was the 24th deep-penetration flight over Soviet territory in four years, and CIA analysts warned of improvements in Soviet air-defense radars and missiles, the risks were deemed worth taking. As Secretary of State Christian Herter had noted in a plea to President Dwight Eisenhower to resume the U-2 flights: "The intelligence objective outweighs the danger of getting trapped."

Is history repeating itself? On Thursday, Iranian state television showed two men in military uniforms running their hands across the swept-wing frame of what the broadcast claimed was an RQ-170 Sentinel drone. An unnamed U.S. official said with "high confidence" that the drone displayed was the Sentinel that had gone missing 140 miles inside of Iran. (Only days earlier, a senior official had claimed: "The Iranians have a pile of rubble and are trying to figure what they have.") Several officials have acknowledged that the drone was under CIA control on an intelligence collection mission inside Iran.

It is understandable that an event with headlines that include the words "Iran," "drone," and "nuclear" generate a great deal of attention. Yet, for all the bytes and ink expended in discussing the downed Sentinel drone, it is neither surprising nor particularly revealing. As was true in 1960, the benefits of spying on Iran outweigh the dangers of the program being revealed or a downed aircraft, and are what Americans should expect from the $55 billion spent last year on national intelligence. To understand why this downed drone is such an ordinary event requires an understanding the day-to-day process of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Here's how it works. Senior policymakers provide tasking guidance to the IC through the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which is the "sole mechanism for establishing national intelligence priorities," according to an Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence (ODNI) directive. The NIPF process is coordinated by the ODNI, and results in a matrix listing the intelligence priorities of policymakers based on topics covered at National Security Council meetings and discussions with cabinet officials. The NIPF is updated every six months and signed by the president. As was described to me recently, the matrix consists of some 30 issues of concern for collection ranked in horizontal bands, running from A (most important) to C (least important), with some 180 state and non-state groups listed on the vertical axis. Finally, the matrix is color-coded based on the degree of current priority. After the ranking, the matrix is then translated into specific guidance from the DNI to senior IC managers for allocating collection and analytical resources.

Though the NIPF is highly classified, it is likely that there is no higher priority intelligence target than Iran's nuclear program, ballistic-missile sites, and air-defense system. Given that the Sentinel was reportedly on a CIA mission, there is certainly a presidential memoranda of notification (or several) that broadly authorizes the covert collection efforts in Iran. Moreover, assuredly the Senate and House intelligence committees have been briefed often and thoroughly about the CIA's use of the Sentinel over Iran.

Since Iran is among the most important intelligence collection priority, it would only make sense for the United States to utilize its most advanced capabilities, just as the U-2 spy plane was a half-century ago. The United States has reportedly been flying drones of various capabilities and missions over Iran since as early as April 2004, some of which Iranians believed to be UFOs. The following year, Iran protested the drone flights to the United States through Swiss diplomatic channels, and via letters to the U.N. Security Council, demanding "an end to such unlawful acts." The RQ-170 Sentinel drone itself, pictures of which were first published in 2007, had flown from Afghan airbases over Iran "for years," according to the Associated Press. (Of course, Iran also flies surveillance drones against U.S. military assets, as demonstrated in this grainy video of the USS Ronald Reagan.)

That one of many drones dedicated to collecting intelligence over Iran has fallen into Iranian hands is also expected given the law of averages. Drones crash at rates higher than manned aircraft for any number of reasons, including due to human error, incorrect information, network interference, system failure, weather, or being shot down. As a former official warned: "It was never a matter of whether we were going to lose one but when."

With an array of advanced sensors and unmatched speed and loiter time, the RQ-170s flying above Iran probably had four collection priorities: 1) The location and activities of all known and suspected nuclear sites, including air sensors to retrieve remote traces of tell-tale signs of nuclear activities, such as krypton-85; 2) The location and activities of ballistic-missile production facilities and test ranges; 3) The location of training camps for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah; 4) The location and technical characteristics of Iran's integrated air-defense system, including the transmitting power and spatial coverage of radars and performance characteristics of surface-to-air missiles. Any information was obtained was assuredly corroborated by multiple other intelligence collection platforms.

While intelligence collection in Iran will undoubtedly suffer somewhat, the primary concern regarding the crash is the prospect of Iran providing the Sentinel to other foreign governments. Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency reported "that Russian and Chinese officials have asked for permission to inspect the U.S. spy drone." This prospect is likely given historical precedent: In 1998, Chinese officials reportedly visited Khost, Afghanistan, to purchase intact Tomahawk cruise missiles that failed to explode in an U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's hideout. The following year, Chinese intelligence agents reportedly bought the wreckage from a downed U.S. stealth F-117 Nighthawk, some of which might have been reverse-engineered for China's J-20 stealth fighter.

When the ill-fated U-2 was lost over the Soviet Union, its superior replacement, the A-12 OXCART, was already well under development at the ultra-secret Skunk Works facilities -- so the U-2 was no huge loss. Similarly, the Sentinel's downing will only be a temporary setback. As Aviation Week reported, the Sentinel's sensor package considered "so invaluable when it debuted in Afghanistan about two years ago is considered outdated." The hyper-spectral sensor capabilities mounted on future stealth drones will make the RQ-170 Sentinel seem quaint. When those future drones also unfortunately fall onto the territory of Iran or other adversaries, people will be surprised and unnecessarily alarmed then, too.