The Drone Revolution Revisited

[gview file=””]

In 2009, not many people were talking seriously about robots in war. Even though every U.S. armed service operated drones either in the air, on the ground, or undersea, and though numerous initiatives to develop the next generation of advanced systems were already publicly underway, there was very little broad public dialogue on the topic. By 2012, the year that we founded the Center for the Study of the Drone, news stories about unmanned systems technology and its implications were appearing regularly, and a vibrant public debate around the use of these systems was increasingly filling the airwaves.

What put drones into the the public spotlight? One factor was undoubtedly the inauguration of President Obama, whose administration quickly expanded the military’s use of drones. Another significant factor was the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by Peter W. Singer. Published in 2009, Wired for War offered a comprehensive portrait of the influx of drones into the U.S. military at a critical time in the history of the technology, and the many ways in which they would transform the battlefield. By presenting the rapidly expanding menagerie of drones in both the sky and on the ground, Singer demonstrated that the field of military robotics had matured to a point where it was disrupting the status quo. He described proliferating technologies that were already presenting significant challenges and opportunities—one example being the psychological impact of remote warfare on drone pilots and sensor operators—as well as programs and fields of research that were likely to yield new transformative capabilities in the near future. One such track was the development of autonomous weapons systems that can identify and engage targets without human intervention.

The book served as a core text in our class “The Drone Revolutions,” an undergraduate seminar held at Bard College in the spring 2016 academic semester. The class sought to lay out a broad overview of unmanned systems technology in both military and civilian spheres, and equip students with the analytical tools to conduct original research on unmanned systems. As a final assignment for the seminar, we asked each student to research two platforms or technologies described in Wired for War in order to determine whether the program still exists, how the system has developed, and how the technology is currently being used (and by whom).

“The Drone Revolution Revisited” offers a guide to the evolving ecosystem of unmanned systems technologies as it stands in 2016, and reflects the ways in which the technology has evolved and matured over the past seven years since the publication of Wired for War. The research produced by our students served as the basis for Chapter I, which consists of portraits of 30 systems that Singer presented as the harbingers of the drone revolution. Some of the systems—for example, the U.S. Navy’s MQ-8 Fire Scout—have grown into large multi-billion dollar military acquisition programs, while other systems that seemed promising, such as the Boston Dynamics BigDog or the Foster Miller SWORDS, have fizzled. Of these 30 systems, 13 are active or deployed, three remain in development, and 14 have been cancelled or are inactive. By revisiting these systems, we have sought to update, expand upon, and interrogate Singer’s 2009 portrait of the drone revolution.

USS Theodore Roosevelt operations

For each system, we explain what it does, which military service or agency developed it, its specifications, its history, and (if the information is available) its cost. We also describe whether the system remains in development, has been deployed, or was cancelled. For deployed programs, we describe the extent to which they have been used, and by whom. For cancelled programs, we identify the reasons for their cancellation. It should be noted that the benchmarks “developmental,” “deployed,” and “cancelled” that we present on page 5 refer to the formal military programs under which a particular system was managed, rather than the actual system. If a particular program is cancelled by the military, that does not necessarily spell the end for the particular drone or robot. For example, prototypes of a cancelled system may remain in contractors’ inventories; though the Pentagon cancelled the Global Observer program in 2012 the manufacturer, AeroVironment, is actively seeking alternate customers for the drone. Or new programs may emerge that build on technologies that were matured through earlier cancelled program. Though the Air Force is phasing out its MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper—essentially a larger, faster variant of the Predator—is slated to remain in use far into the foreseeable future.

The systems and programs in this report represent only a sample of the many drones that exist today. Some of the most significant trends that we are currently witnessing are not fully reflected by the systems that existed or were already under development in 2009. The maritime domain has become more important in recent years; unmanned undersea and surface vehicles are slated to play a prominent role in naval operations in the near future, and numerous high-profile maritime drone development programs are currently underway. Likewise, certain ground and airborne unmanned systems programs that already existed in 2009 have evolved in dramatic ways, or given rise to entirely new programs. For example, the Northrop Grumman X-47A, an in-house prototype combat drone, has since given rise to the X-47B, an impressive demonstrator combat drone developed for Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program, which was recently reconceived as the MQ-25A Stingray, an aerial refuelling drone with strike capabilities. Finally, and crucially, non-U.S. drone programs have expanded significantly; China and Europe, for example, are seeking to develop advanced aerial drones that can match the capabilities of U.S. systems. In order to reflect these trends, we present portraits of six platforms not mentioned in Wired for War that are representative of important shifts in the recent history of drone technology development. These platforms are highlighted in light blue.

In Chapter II, Peter Singer revisits the book and reflects on the trajectory of the drone evolution in the time since it was published. Singer points to trends that have emerged since 2009, such as the growth in the use of drones in the U.S. targeted killing program and the emergence of swarming technology programs, and predicts the ways in which the field is likely to evolve in the near future.

This report points to numerous possible avenues for future research. Why do some technologies fail while others thrive? How have the priorities for certain drones changed over the years and how are these priorities reflected in the defense budget? By reviewing programs side by side, our hope is to foster dialogue about the broader patterns that can indicate whether or not a system is likely to be successful or not, as well as lessons regarding the types of point failures that can cause a program to be cancelled. In doing so, we are looking to spark a conversation about where the most significant technological advances are likely to happen and to inform predictions on the next seven years of drone technology development.

This video preview of the report shows some of the profiled systems in action: