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An Introduction to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

What Is a UAV

The term UAV is an abbreviation of Unmanned Aerial vehicle, meaning aerial vehicles which operate without a human pilot. UAVs are commonly used in both the military and police forces in situations where the risk of sending a human piloted aircraft is unacceptable, or the situation makes using a manned aircraft impractical.

One of the predecessors of today’s fully autonomous UAVs were the “aerial torpedoes”, designed and built during World War One. These were primitive UAVs, relying on mechanical gyroscopes to maintain straight and level flight, and flying until they ran out of fuel. They would then fall from the sky and deliver and explosive payload.

More advanced UAVs used radio technology for guidance, allowing them to fly missions and return. They were constantly controlled by a human pilot, and were not capable of flying themselves. This made them much like todays RC model airplanes which many people fly as a hobby. It is interesting to note that the government considers all aircraft UAVs, if they are unmanned and used by a government or business.

After the invention of the integrated circuit, engineers were able to build sophisticated UAVs, using electronic autopilots. It was at this stage of development that UAVs became widely used in military applications. UAVs could be deployed, fly themselves to a target location, and either attack the location with weapons, or survey it with cameras and other sensor equipment.

Modern UAVs are controlled with both autopilots, and human controllers in ground stations. This allows them to fly long, uneventfully flights under their own control, and fly under the command of a human pilot during complicated phases of the mission.

What Are UAVs Used For?

Since their creation, UAVs have found many uses in police, military, and in some cases, civil applications. Currently, UAVs are most often used for the following tasks:

  • Aerial Reconnaissance – UAVs are often used to get aerial video of a remote location, especially where there would be unacceptable risk to the pilot of a manned aircraft. UAVs can be equipped with high resolution still, video, and even infrared cameras. The information obtained by the UAV can be streamed back to the control center in real time.
  • Scientific Research – In many cases, scientific research necessitates obtaining data from hazardous, or remote locations. A good example is hurricane research, which often involves sending a large manned aircraft into the center of the storm to obtain meteorological data. A UAV can be used to obtain this data, with no risk to a human pilot.
  • Logistics and Transportation – UAVs can be used to carry and deliver a variety of payloads. Helicopter type UAVs are well suited to this purpose, because payloads can be suspended from the bottom of the airframe, with little aerodynamic penalty.

Types Of UAVs

There are many different types of UAVs, designed for different purposes. The US air force is one of the most prominent users of UAV technology, and classifies UAVs by dividing them into tiers. To get a general idea of the different types of UAVs used, here is an abbreviated version of the US air force specification:

  • Micro UAVs – small, extremely portable units.
  • Low altitude, long endurance UAVs
  • High altitude, long endurance UAVs employing a conventional design.
  • High altitude, long endurance UAVs using a low observable design.

Some UAVs use a blimp design, and are well suited to carrying large amounts of cargo.
Some of the first UAVs were called “drones” and were not autonomous, because
they required constant control input from a remote human pilot. Computer technology now allows UAVs to make their own decisions, or fly autonomously. Autonomous flight involves the UAV making decisions as it flies.

Generally, autonomous flight consists of the following operations:

  • Interpreting sensor input, and merging the input of multiple sensors
  • Communicating with ground stations, satellites, and other UAVs and aircraft
  • Determining the ideal course to fly for a given mission, based on sensor input.
  • Determining the best maneuvers to perform for a given task
  • In some cases, cooperating with other UAVs to accomplish a common task.

The Swarm Project by MIT is an excellent example of cooperation between UAVs. Autonomy is an area of rapid development, with the ultimate goal of replacing the human pilot entirely.


UAVs represent an area of rapid development in both military and civilian applications. UAVs unique capability of flying dangerous, long, or precision missions give it a unique advantage over conventional aircraft. This article has only briefly introduced UAVs and their applications.

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