How Drones Work

More Military Might
Military UAV pilots get extensive training, but many burn out early on.
Military UAV pilots get extensive training, but many burn out early on.
© Joe McNally/Getty Images

As the digital revolution has unfolded with its tiny microprocessors and long-distance communications abilities, drones have become more and more useful for military operations. By one estimate, the U.S. military has roughly 11,000 manned airplanes and perhaps 8,000 drones, meaning that a third of the air force is unmanned. For anyone who feared the coming age of automated, sci-fi-type warfare ... well, those days are already here.

The U.S. military has three categories for drones: mini, tactical and strategic. Mini drones are small and mostly used for short-range surveillance. Tactical drones can fly for several hours and as far as 200 miles (322 kilometers) and are used to assess enemy targets. Strategic drones can fly for days and carry weapons.

Some drones use battery power to turn propellers. Newer and pricier versions have full-blown jet engines and can fly more than 500 miles (805 kilometers) per hour, soaring to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) or even higher.

Some drones are autonomous, following preprogrammed routines. Many others require pilots. Those pilots may be on the ground near the operation, or they may sit in control rooms, thousands of miles away, guiding their minions by high-speed wireless networking links.

In part because there's a delay of a couple of seconds from the control room to the drone, crashes do happen. Sometimes pilots push the wrong buttons. Sometimes they misread the flight data they see on their workstation monitors; cameras on the drones simply aren't a substitute for a pilot's real vision and other senses. More than 400 large drones have crashed since 2001, but many disasters have been averted, too. If a communications link is cut, advanced drones are programmed to fly in circles or even to return to the nearest base without human guidance.

Like air traffic controllers, drone pilots have high-stress yet often dull and repetitive jobs, mostly surveilling areas for intelligence and potential targets. Because of burnout, they quit three times as often as regular pilots, and the U.S. military recently doubled drone pilot salaries to stop them from running for the exits.

Those who stay receive extensive training in a traditional classroom setting, as well as hands-on training at their computers. They execute endless practice runs and then review their in-flight decisions, attempting to hone their minds to select the best approach to any given scenario, particularly those that involve the use of deadly force.

When they score an important victory, these pilots receive medals just like any others, and in spite of the geographical disconnect from their targets, many suffer emotional trauma from the damage their strikes cause.

Not all drones inflict suffering and mayhem. There is an entire range of drones for commercial and private use.