What Are Military Drones?

What Are Military Drones
Image credit: Shadman Samee from Dhaka, Bangladesh via Wikimedia

Do you wonder if the little quadcopters we use for things like aerial surveys and photography are what the military uses? In a sense, they look too small for major army operations. So, what are military drones?

Military drones are unmanned aerial aircraft that perform a range of missions, including intelligence, surveillance, and sometimes combat. The operators, called drone pilots, control these crafts remotely.

You must know the difference between these UAVs and commercial drones. On that account, we will touch on the following areas in this article:

  • Special applications
  • Capabilities and functionalities
  • Unique features

Let’s expand on your question (What are military drones?) and touch on all the key areas.

Military Drones Have Special Applications

Unlike quadcopters that you can easily whop out from the storage box and put in flight, military drones take a more technical path. That is not to say that these little crafts cannot serve the army.

Military drones often have added features based on their applications. Look at the US Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper or the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, and you can tell the enhanced capabilities.

Armies across the globe operating UAVs tune them for different uses. Their applications transcend simple aerial survey, photography, or videography. Instead, they focus on military-centric operations like surveillance and even combat.

We will explore the features that give these aircraft enhanced capabilities, but let’s appraise their applications first. Starting here will give you a better overview to answering your question, what are military drones?

So, what are the uses or applications of army UAVs? They include the following:


If you have a fair knowledge of military operations, you will understand that reconnaissance is a core part of it. It forms the basis for decision-making and decides if a combat mission should go ahead.

While ground operations with personnel remain crucial, aerial reconnaissance could save time and lives. Moreover, UAVs have a wider field of view and can take in more information in a split second.

Do not mix up reconnaissance with surveillance. Though both involve similar activities, they differ in delivery time and specific. The former usually happens in a shorter period and focuses on obtaining a particular piece of information.

So, if you are wondering, what are military drones? Reconnaissance should be the first thing in your mind. If you thought of combat, you are right, and we will get to that in a second.

Military drones have extensive applications in reconnaissance, even more so than in combat. However, as technology grows, we will see more extensive usage in attack missions.

Let’s point something out before moving forward. Quadcopters can function for short-range and low-altitude reconnaissance missions, but not long-range. That is because they are quicker to deploy in emergencies.  

Popular military reconnaissance drones include the MQ-9 Reaper, CAIG Wing Loong II, TAI Aksungur, and Elbit Hermes 900. They may differ in build, but they have underlying similarities.

One area military reconnaissance drones excel in is the camera systems. They have high-definition and even thermal cameras, which help in night-time surveillance. We will see more of this capability in the features section.


Would it be a military drone if it cannot execute combat? Of course not, and that will reduce it to commercial consumer drones like quadcopters.

Combat is one of the key areas to the question (what are military drones?). These UAVs have capacities to carry payloads, in this case, missiles or warheads.

Coupled with high-range flights, they can become deadly against an ill-equipped enemy. Today, the race is on for fine-tuning aerial defense systems against drones.

Combat is an integral part of the military, and it is only proper that the drones have the capabilities. UAVs developed for attack missions can carry heavy payloads, sometimes up to 1000Kg.

Also, they can fly to high altitudes, as seen in the MQ-9 Reaper’s 12km altitude. Add that to 12 or 30 hours of flight, and you have a destructive weapon.

Military drones for combat often have anti-radar designs. Else they will be the target of aerial defense systems. The aim is to go in stealthily, deliver the payload and fly away.

One of the most combat drones is the US Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper, but the more advanced MQ-1C Gray Eagle is a more potent weapon. Others include the MQ-1 Predator, CASC Rainbow, Bayraktar Akinci, and the Elbit Hermes 900.

What are Military Drones? The Capabilities

Intelligence gathering, including surveillance and reconnaissance, and combat are the two primary uses of military drones. The applications inform the build or design they will have.

There are specific capabilities that military drones have over regular consumer ones. Most of it comes from the design and power systems, but even the camera gear differs.

The following are the unique capabilities of military drones:

Long-Range Flight

If you are asking, what are military drones? Then you would probably also want to know about the flight range. This characteristic defines a UAV’s ability to carry out army operations.

Remember that these drones are remote-controlled machines. As a result, the range depends on how far the radio control signals can travel.

The remote control does not remove the presence of pre-programmed drones. The latter follows a series of pre-written commands and has no real-time control. Nevertheless, the military prefers to have real-time oversight.

Take Israel’s Elbit Hermes 900, for instance. The drone can climb up to 30,000 feet and go as fast as 220 km/h. Its wing span extends to 15 m and can carry a 300kg payload.

Please, be aware that endurance is different from flight range. Flight endurance refers to a drone’s total hours in the air.

Other long-range military drones include IAI Eitan, RQ-4 Global Hawk Hale, Hermes 900 Mal, MQ-9Predator UAS, Yabhon Smart Eye, etc.


Military drones often have to spend hours in the air, and endurance is crucial in establishing aerial superiority. Moreover, you don’t want your drones giving in every couple of hours.

The longer a drone stays in flight in combat or reconnaissance, the better. As a result, military forces worldwide race to have the longest-enduring UAV.

Military drones can last from a couple of hours to 40 hours in flight, and technology pushes for over a hundred hours of endurance, days in the sky.

Many things affect the endurance capabilities of military drones, and a major player is the payload. Combat UAVs usually have lower endurance rates than surveillance versions due to their heavier load.

Flight Altitude

Military drones can climb thousands of feet in the sky. Some can go as high as 30,000 feet and swoop down to deliver their payloads when needed.

Drones share many similarities with fighter jets, with the major difference being the absence of an onboard pilot. They can fall prey to air defense systems, hence the need to fly as high as possible.

The MQ-9 Reaper enjoys a maximum altitude of 15km, which is higher than many rivals in the game. While altitude does not necessarily equal efficiency, it is useful in protecting the drone.

Air defense systems use radar to detect unauthorized aircraft and launch missiles if the warnings are not heeded. They are efficient, but they do not have infinite coverage.

One of the most potent ways to escape radar systems is to fly as high as possible, hence the high-altitude capabilities of military drones.

Other things like design and materials also help in flying past Radar systems undetected, but staying high up in the clouds is a potent way. Regardless, the aim is not to keep them there forever but to keep them long enough to avoid detection.

Important Features of Military Drones

Features define the capabilities of UAVs, and you can read more in our ”how drones work” article. Military drones have unique builds that support their reconnaissance or combat missions.

Drones are much like small airplanes, with all the essential components needed for flight. Added features include high-definition sensors and transmitters.

Spy drones have heavy camera gear, including infrared optics to enable night vision. However, they lack the fighting abilities of combat UAVs.

That being said and done, here are the common features of military drones:


If you have gotten to this point, you are no longer wondering what are military drones? Unlike quadcopters or other small variants, military drones use the international combustion engine.

Getting to speeds of 220km is no mean feat, and combustion engines are the best choice. They can produce enough power to carry the drone through flight even in the most turbulent conditions.

Directly connected to the engine would be the propellers. Altering the pitch of the blades results in either climbing or descent.

You can have a 4-cylinder engine powering a military drone or more powerful engines. Generally, UAVs with higher payloads and functionalities use bigger engines.

Camera Gear

Real-time control will be futile if the pilot cannot see the environment in front of him. As a result, military drones, especially spy drones, have advanced camera systems.

The primary navigational camera is in the nose and is high-definition, giving the pilot the best view. Then, you can have a variable aperture camera used for targeting.

Progressing from there brings you to the infrared cameras, which come in for low-light and night vision. They are extremely powerful optics, especially when targeting is involved.

All these gadgets will be useless if the drone cannot detect threats. For that, manufacturers equip them with a synthetic aperture radar that helps to see through clouds or smoke.

Targeting System

Combat military drones have a targeting system for delivering their payload. A Multispectral Targeting System (MTS) can transform even a spy drone into a lethal weapon.

Targeting systems usually include electro-optical infrared, laser illuminator, and laser designator. They enable the drone to acquire a target in multiple ways.

Targeting begins when the drone fires an infrared beam or laser on the target. The beam pulses and attracts the seekers at the end of the missiles while the onboard computer calculates the trajectory.

The Era of Unmanned Aerial Combat

We are in the era of unmanned aerial combat, and we believe our article has answered your question, what are military drones? Technology continues to give new capabilities to UAVs.

Most cameras on military UAVs are capable of long-range shots, while the drone can fly as high as 30,000km. The battle rages on for more endurance and superiority in the skies.

Nevertheless, military drones have saved the lives of countless pilots that would otherwise be operating fighter jets for deadly missions. Do you think we will get to an age where all fighter jets are unmanned?

Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like