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UAV Trends

Analysing the shifts and challenges in Military Drone Technology and exploring Evolving Trends in Military Unmanned Aerial Systems

Issue: 12-2023By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By Boeing, GA-ASI, DARPA, Air Force Research Laboratory, Wikipedia / Gagan

The future of aviation is clearly unmanned. With the advent of aerial automation, and further augmented by artificial intelligence (AI), more and more military missions are today being assigned to unmanned aerial systems (UAS). All militaries are acquiring UAS and drones to undertake a variety of missions. Major Powers are having design and production set ups. Significant part of defence budgets arenow being earmarked for UAS.

Under the proposed $3.5 billion mega deal, India will acquire 31 General Atomics MQ-9B high altitude, long endurance drones, with 15 SeaGuardians for Indian Navy and eight SkyGuardians each for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Indian Navy had been operating two SeaGuardian drones (unarmed variants) on lease from the American Company since 2020. The long endurance drones supplemented the Boeing P8-I maritime patrol aircraft.


Militaries use drones mostly for dull, dirty, or dangerous missions. Dull being long endurance surveillance missions; dirty could be flying into a contaminated area; and dangerous would be in a highly contested threat area. Drones have been used in military operations for several decades. In the past, they were primarily used for surveillance. However, with advances in technology, drones have become more capable and versatile. They are now used for a wide range of military operations, including combat missions.

Important military mission are intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) that requires high-resolution cameras and sensors that allow to collect data and images from a distance. Drones support target acquisition, and thereafter targeting by ground based weapons or airborne platforms. They could also be used for laser lasing. Drones support battle damage assessment. Weapon carrying drones are used for precision strikes, including from stand-off ranges. They can provide offensive air support in ground battle against armour, gunpositions and troops. Drones can perform interdiction missions.

Modern drones also have air-to-air weapons that could be used both for defensive and offensive missions. Drones could fire missiles to neutralise incoming cruise missiles and other platforms. They can be used as an anti-UAS platform or even knockdown a combat helicopter.

Drones help create combat zone situational awareness, and in turn force protection. Drones are used for logistics and supply missions. They also act as airborne communications nodes to extend radio range. UAS greatly support search and rescue missions.


Large UAS platforms have high endurance, and thus long loiter time, and are ideal for surveillance. They have greater weapon carriage capability. They can fly high above small arms and man-portable AD weapons. In uncontested areas they have been effectively used to destroy ground targets and also to target individual militant leaders as was done in Afghanistan and elsewhere in West Asia. AI is supporting autonomy. Large UAS are being used for flight refuelling roles. For better protection, future UAS would be stealth. Alternatively future combat aircraft will be optionally manned.

But large UAS are expensive. They can be taken down by long range SAMs and fighter aircraft. They were very effective in Iraq and Afghanistan because of uncontested environment. American large drones have been threatened by Russians in Syria and Black Sea despite deconfliction protocols being in place between the two super-powers. Yemen’s Houthi rebels’ air defences have successfully targeted them in West Asia.

Cost-effective and adaptable, these drones offer a dynamic and affordable solution to military needs and have emerged as game-changers in modern warfare

With the major contest now developing between the US and China and Russia, the environment would not be benign. Similar will be the case between India and its neighbours China and Pakistan.

Yet large UAS continue to have role with stand-off weapons and for large area surveillance such as Oceans and Seas, and across mountains. Large loiter munitions like IAI Harop and Harpy can have significant endurance and then destroy a well-fortified concrete target.


Small drones could be as little as a few grams to just a few kilograms. Small drones have many roles including operations in confined spaces. Weapon laden drones can be used for Kamikaze attack roles, as has been very effectively used in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and in the Ukraine-Russia war. These drones are usually as cheap as $3,000 and may go up to about $50,000. They can therefore be held in large numbers in unit inventory. Small drones also provide logistics support to the field commander in the mountains. They are good for acrossthe-obstacle surveillance. These have been seen to have gamechanging role.


To neutralise a drone, it has first to be detected. Small size, low radar cross section (RCS), low noise, smoke, and infrared (IR) signature, make detection difficult. There are different types of drone monitoring equipment. These are radio frequency (RF) analysers, acoustic sensors (microphones), and optical sensors (cameras). Avian radars are being used at airports for checking bird activity. These have limited range and are expensive, so cannot be deployed across the entire border. The radar that detects drones may also detect birds and make it complicated. The radars are better than optical sensors, have longer range, and are more accurate, and can see more threats in day and night. Some Doppler radars are being designed to distinguish between drones and birds.

Optical sensors, visible and infrared, can detect drones by day and night. Modern optical sensors have improved resolution and processing power. Also, sets of microphone arrays can be used for detection and rough triangulation. They are passive and great gap fillers. But they do not work well in high ambient noise. Also, there range is limited to around 500 metres.


Drones can be neutralised by physical destruction, jamming it, or taking control of the drone. There are RF Jammers to mask the controller signal. But then some drones are programmed to return home automatically under such a scenario. A GPS spoofer could send a new signal to the target drone and replace the communication signal it uses to navigate to own ‘safe zone’. Cyber takeover systems are a relatively new. They passively detect radio frequency transmissions to identify the drone’s serial number and locate the pilot’s position using AI, and then take-over the drone.

Kinetic solutions involve shooting the drone using a gun. High power microwave (HPM) devices can generate electromagnetic pulse (EMP) capable of disrupting drone electronic devices. But there is risk of unintentionally disrupting communications or destroying friendly electronic devices in the area. High-energy lasers defeat the drone by destroying the structure and/or the electronics. Laser could also cause collateral damage. Net guns can fire a net at a drone and entangle drone rotor blades to bring it down.


Better communications, high speed computation and AI have greatly supported drones flying in coordinated swarms. Drone swarms have great military applications. Drone swarms can be used as decoy formations. A drone swarm can saturate enemy radars and also air defence weapons. A typical drone swarm may have mix of surveillance, ELINT, electronic warfare and attack drones. Technology evolved for drone swarms is also been ported on to manned unmanned teaming (MUMT).

Drone swarms will have to be countered using standard anti-drone methods. Jamming intra-drone links could send them astray. A drone swarm could be used to intercept the adversary drone swarm. Satellites based directed energy weapons would be used to neutralise drone swarms in the future.


Aircraft automation and data-links have allowed manned unmanned teaming (MUMT). Such a team can use advantages of both, the less expensive drone, and much higher flexibility and fire-power of a manned platform, without exposing the more expensive manned aircraft and the airborne crew to high threat environment. The unmanned wingmen could perform ISR or tactical early warning missions, and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD).

The drones could be launched from the ground or from airborne mother-ship. The package members are assigned separate roles and tasks. A few could act as decoys. Others could take on electronic warfare and SEAD roles. Significant members could be carrying munitions. Some would have intelligence gathering roles and also for battle damage assessment.


Because of high demand of military drones, the market is growing most rapidly. Among the major large UAS manufacturers of the world are General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Turkish Aerospace Industries, and AeroVironment, among others. Both, China and Russia have significant UAS manufacturing capability. China’s Wing Loong series are sophisticated and being sought by many countries. For long the Europeans were dependent on the US for UAS. Dassault Aviation, Leonardo, and Space SAU, are producing the future “Eurodrone” which will progressively replace the Reaper drones in France. Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 has had great success and many orders. Pakistan too manufactures UAS with technical support from China.


The small drone market has many players. The top small drone manufacturers of 2023 were DJI, Yuneec International, and PowerVision, all from China. They control nearly 70 per cent of small civil drone market. The top American companies in this category were AeroVironment and Insitu. Parrot and Delairis are French. The British, German and Italian suppliers have developed different models of tactical drones. Poland’s Warmate, Iran’s Shahid drones have been used in many conflict zones. Low-cost “off the shelf” drones are being adapted for military use by non-state groups like Hezbollah.


The Ukraine conflict has shown that significant operational battle-zone effects can be achieved by using low-tech cheaper kamikaze drones instead. These effects will multiply when a drone swarm is used. Large loitering drones such as IAI Harpy and Harop do have significant endurance and can make a kamikaze attack, but also cost a lot. There are some expensive drones that can be recovered back if not expended.

Large drones have proved very well for ISR. Both Russia and China continue to develop drones of the kind with the US. However, in contested domain they will have to stay far to be safe. There are plans to develop large drones for contested environment by increasing self-defence capability, and better manoeuvrability. This would mean airframe design changes and also compromises on endurance. With large number space based constellations coming up in low earth orbit, part of the ISR role can best be done from space.

There is clearly a need to re-design and produce more survivable large drones. They have to be stealthy like the proposed Indian “Ghatak” drone. Also, there is need to redefine the operational employability and roles of existing ones. More stand-off sensors and weapons perhaps. Improved AESA radar, self-defence electronic suite and air-to-air weapons. Survivability can be increased by using self-protection pods against infrared and radio frequency guided threats in contested environments. The large drones could also be converted in to mothership for smaller kamikaze drones. They could be adapted to carry air-to-air interceptors or directed energy weapons to counter air and missile threats to remote and forward bases including during out-of-area contingencies. The USAF is already working on a future Next-Generation Multi-Role Unmanned Aerial System Family-of-Systems.


China already operates the Chengdu GJ series of drones, also called Wing Loong. These are in both Medium Altitude and High Altitude Long Endurance variants. China has their armed variant, and continues to develop more advanced ones. The Wing Loong II, with provision for up to twelve air-to-surface missiles entered PLA Air Force (PLAAF) service in 2018. As per media reports, a new generation of high-speed, long-endurance drones powered by low-cost jet engines has entered military service in China.

Pakistan acquired the CH-4 UCAVs from China. They have used them to conduct strikes in Balochistan. They have the maritime variants also. The indigenous Burraq UCAV has been jointly developed and built by the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Shahpar-2 is another indigenous UAV. They also acquired significant numbers of the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs. They have ordered the Bayraktar Akinci HALE UCAV, deliveries for which have reportedly just begun.

Indian armed forces have depended on Israel for its UAS requirements with IAI Heron and Searcher. The Harpy and Harop were the large loiter munitions. India’s DRDO remains the major player for large UAS in India with its Tapas-BH-201 and Ghatak UCAV still evolving. Adani-Elbit makes Hermes UAS in India. India has over 100 drone startups, and the market clearly has big future. Indian armed forces have placed significant orders for small drones. ideaForge and NewSpace Research & Technologies have got significant orders from Indian Army. Veda Defence Systems has order from the Indian Air Force. Many more orders will get placed regularly.

The IAF could use the UAS to not only look across the mountain in Himalayas for surveillance, and attack ground targets, but also use them to intercept cruise missiles. A few large drones can create an airborne radar chain for sectorial radar cover. IAF could use these drones for ELINT, SAR, and electronic warfare roles.

The large drones will continue to have significant role in maritime surveillance. They are much cheaper to operate than the P-8I Poseidon aircraft, and can supplement the air effort. They could also support creating extended air picture and situational awareness in India’s Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. Lastly the large drones can greatly support the civil administration for emergency response to detect and mitigate the effects of natural disasters.

For some time to come, large drones will continue to play a significant role in Indian sub-continent. India must accelerate the development and production of indigenous systems. There is a need to work more aggressively on MUMT.


DARPA had funded development of Skyborg, a software and hardware package designed to allow a variety of low-cost, loyal wingman UAVs to fly and carry out missions autonomously. The Skyborg project is a USAF Vanguard programme developing unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) intended to accompany a manned fighter aircraft. Contracts have been awarded to Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems and Northrop Grumman. A Skyborg-equipped UAS conducted its maiden flight in April 2021. Two General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger UAVs demonstrated in-flight communication between each other and “responded to navigational commands, stayed within specified geo-fences, and maintained flight envelopes,” while monitored from the ground command and control station.

Northrop Grumman Corp’s Model 437 stealthy fighter jet with a 4,500 km range will involve flying alongside the F-35 jet fighter. USAF plans to build an airborne, autonomous ‘best of breed’ system of systems. The UAVs would be paired with USAF’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.


Miniaturisation of antennas is being studied to develop smaller and more agile UAVs with enhanced capabilities. Novel materials and manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing are evolving. Drones based flying ad-hoc networks (FANETs) for wireless communications are being considered and will offer advantages such as improved coverage, increased mobility, and access to remote or inaccessible areas. Tilt rotor designs are also evolving for seamless transition from vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) to higher speed forward flight.

Further research is on for energy-efficient flight. This will be done through aerodynamic design optimisation, lighter materials, and alternative energy sources as solar and electric-hybrid. Integration of UAVs with Internet of Things (IoT) has opened up new possibilities for data collection, analysis, and communication in various fields. Actions are at hand to develop systems for detecting and avoiding collisions with manned aircraft in shared airspace.

Intuitive and efficient human-UAV interaction systems are evolving. So are better AI algorithms for swarm behaviour. ChatGPT is proposed to be used for more accurate control of drones. Improving beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) capabilities is being worked on. Future UAS will be more easily transformed from one role to other. Having foldable wings would reduce storage space, and make easy to transport.

The drone market is growing rapidly due to the high demand from militaries. More than 80 countries now have military drones for surveillance and munition roles. The rising civil market is adapting to meet the military demands. As per Statista analysis, the global drone market was 26.3 billion US dollars in 2021 and will reach 54.6 billion US dollars by 2030 at a CAGR of 13.58 per cent. The growth is significantly due to sharp increase in demand from security forces and agencies. With drone proliferation, countering unmanned aerial systems (CUAS) has also become a big market.

The increased demand is also bringing greater investments in technologies related to photonics, optronics, AI, image analysis, and sensors of all kinds. Also, in transport autonomy and cyber-security. Advance in AI will continue to play a critical role in UAS for both design wand mission accomplishment. Actions are on to increase survivability in contested environment.

India’s initial MUMT experimentation is being led by HAL with the proposed LCA based CATS in collaboration with a Bengaluru based start-up, NewSpace Research & Technologies. It will involve a recoverable wingman till the combat radius of 350 km. The range would increase to 800 km for a kamikaze attack on target. India has an ambitious drone development programme. There are a large number of startups. The plan is being driven at the highest levels of the government. Future is unmanned, and India must succeed.