Military Embedded Systems

GUEST BLOG: The worldwide market for unmanned aerial vehicles


April 30, 2024

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Adam Scalin

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. Previously, we studied the markets for fighter planes and bombers, ground combat vehicles and tanks, warships and submarines, and unmanned naval vessels (surface and underwater). Now, it’s time to explore the market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which is rapidly becoming the largest volume segment of the military platforms. First, the UAV designation is actually a misnomer.

Many of these platforms are remotely piloted by humans from a ground control station, and that turns them into RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles). Or if you like, you can call them RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). They are controlled through radio signals (line of sight, or LOS) or satellite links (beyond line of sight, or BLOS). When you talk about an RPV aircraft, the ground control radio equipment, and the remotely located pilot, that turns them into UASs (unmanned aerial systems). Internationally, they are called RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft systems). AAVs, or autonomous aerial vehicles, can fly their mission without any human intervention. And, there’s also UCAV, which stands for unmanned combat aerial vehicle. So, let’s just use UAV or drone, lump everything together, and minimize the amount of literary blood being spilled in this essay.

Second, if you think the designations above are confusing, just wait until we try to organize all the different UAVs into a comprehensive taxonomy, to better appreciate their distinctive forms and missions. Everyone in the military market loves acronyms, so we are compelled to continue that tradition here.

The best way to start that process is look at 1962 tri-service aircraft designation alphabet. A is for attack aircraft (like the A-10 Warthog). B stands for bombers (like the B-52, B-1, B-2). C stands for cargo planes (like the C-130, C-5, C-17). D stands for drone control ground stations, when not talking about the RPV aircraft itself. E stands for electronic warfare planes (like the E-8 Joint Stars or E-2 Hawkeye). F stands for fighter planes (like the F-35, F-15, F-16, F/A-18 Hornet). G stands for glider aircraft.


To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

H stands for helicopter (like the AH-64 Apache). K stands for refueling tanker (like the KC-135 or KC-46). L stands for laser equipped aircraft (none have been designated at this point). M stands for multi-mission (like the MQ-9 Reaper drone). O stands for observation (like the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter). P stands for maritime patrol aircraft (like the P-8 Poseidon). Q stands for unmanned aerial vehicle (like the RQ-1 Predator drone). R stands for reconnaissance (like the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV). S stands for space plane (the present X-37 space plane is experimental for now, until it gets the S designation). SR stands for strategic reconnaissance (like the SR-71). T stands for trainer aircraft (like the T-7 Red Hawk). U stands for utility (like the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter). V stands for vertical take-off and landing (like the V-22 Osprey). X stands for experimental research (like the XQ-58 Valkyrie UAV). Y stood for prototypes and may still be used (like the YF-22, which was the prototype for the F-22). Lastly, Z stands for lighter-than-air balloons.

Up until 1962, J and N stood for test platforms and W stood for weather planes. “I" has never been used for any aircraft designations, but I have a suggestion for it as we progress. As you can see, these alphabetical designations can be mixed together and add to better understanding. Take the KC-46 tanker plane. The K stands for kerosene (jet fuel) and the C stands for cargo. For the AH-64 Apache helicopter, the A stands for attack and the H stands for helicopter. When it comes to UAVs, things are a bit simpler. For the RQ-1 Predator UAV, the R stands for reconnaissance and the Q stands for drone. No weapons are carried on RQ-designated UAVs. For an MQ-9 Reaper, the M stands for multi-mission and the Q stands for UAV. Most MQ-designated drones carry kinetic weapons onboard (bombs and missiles), but might carry electronic warfare weapons instead (signal jammers). These acronyms tell us something about the form of the aircraft and its mission focus without using a lot of words. Even my favorite military platform website (Global Firepower) hasn’t figured out how to organize UAVs yet, so bear with me as we give it a try.

The Pentagon categorizes drones into five groups (small, medium, large, larger, and largest) based on weight, ceiling, and airspeed. But that could lead us into a muddy swamp. The military has been using other acronyms that combine ceiling and flight time: HALE (high-altitude/long-endurance) and MALE (medium-altitude/long-endurance). Let’s use those designations, starting with HALE.

The first HALE is the RQ-4 Global Hawk (R for reconnaissance, Q for drone) that can fly at 60,000 feet for more than 30 hours. About 32 of them have been built at a cost of $123 million each. Most of them have been retired by the Air Force, and their remaining aircraft are being outfitted under the SkyRange program, to be used as flying instruments to collect data on hypersonic missile and aircraft testing programs. NASA still flies two aircraft for research purposes. It looks like NATO has Global Hawks in Europe, South Korea has a few, and one flies in Japan.

There is a version of the Global Hawk used for maritime patrol: the RQ-4 Triton. The U.S. Navy planned to acquire 70 of them, but that total is being reduced to 27 because the cost has climbed to more than $140 million each (for comparison, an F-35 fighter plane costs about $83 million today). The Navy has four of them now. One is flying out of Guam, one from Japan, and another flying in the Middle East. Australia wants to buy four and Japan might want a few of their own. This is a big UAV: its wingspan is wider than a 737 passenger plane (130 feet vs 112 feet), but the fuselage is much shorter (47 feet vs 129 feet). Canada and New Zealand are looking at them for their defense. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) had two Global Hawks to test them for unmanned refueling tanker missions (KQ-X: K for kerosene and Q for unmanned aerial vehicle), but that program has been replaced (as you will see below). The stealthy RQ-180 Sentinel also fits in this class. They cost about $100 million each.

And then, there’s the secretive unmanned hypersonic stealthy SR-72 Darkstar, the replacement for the manned SR-71 intelligence collection plane that was retired in 1989. While the SR-71 flew at 2,300 MPH (MACH 3) at 80,000 feet, the Darkstar will fly at more than 3,900 MPH (MACH 5), and probably higher than the SR-71. First flights are planned for 2025. Let’s call it the SRQ-72 (strategic reconnaissance, drone) and put it in this class until we know more about it.

Next is the MALE drone category. They fly from 10,000 to 30,000 feet altitude for 24 hours or more. Our first entries are the RQ-1 Predator (reconnaissance UAV) and the MQ-1 Predator (multi-mission UAV, which means it is armed). Since 1995, 285 RQ-1s and 75 MQ-1s have been built, at a price of about $4 million each. The Air Force retired the Predator drones in 2018, but it looks like Turkey, UAE, and Morocco still have a few in operation. And the Army bought 204 Grey Eagles (a version of the Predator) and is still flying them today. I don’t see orders for new Predators.

The Predator UAVs were replaced by the larger RQ-9 and MQ-9 Reaper drones (Predator wingspan is 49 feet vs 66 feet for the Reaper). More than 300 have been built since 2007, at a cost of about $32 million each. These UAVs can fly as high as 40,000 feet for about 40 hours. While the MQ-1 Predator could carry 2 Hellfire missiles or two 250-pound bombs, the MQ-9B Reaper has nine hard points (4 under each wing and one under the fuselage). That’s eight Hellfire missiles or eight anti-aircraft missiles, or a mixture of missiles and 500 pound bombs (not to exceed 5,500 pounds). This drone is a missile-carrier and bomb-truck beast, the most heavily armed UAV in the world. India is buying 30 MQ-9 Reapers, Netherlands bought 4 MQ-9s and is buying four more. Italy is buying four, Spain is buying four, Taiwan is buying four, UAE is buying 18, Morocco is buying four. Japan, Canada, and Finland are looking at buying some Reapers. This list will probably expand.

There is a maritime patrol version of the MQ-9 Reaper, called Skyguardian or Seaguardian. The United Kingdom (U.K.) has been working on their Taranis MALE UAV, and the European Union (EU) has been playing with their nEUron MALE drone design. The Taranis has accomplished its first flight, but the nEUron is just a mock-up made from plywood and plastic at this point. The stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone also fits in this class. They cost about $6 million each.

The U.S. Navy flies the MQ-8 Fire Scout UAV. It’s an unmanned helicopter used for reconnaissance, situational awareness, and targeting for other Navy weapons at sea. It can fly for 8 hours at as high as 20,000 feet, so let’s put it here in the MALE category.

There are some other big UAV programs underway, that fit in the MALE category. First is the CCA (collaborative combat aircraft), the “loyal wingman” program in the U.S. Air Force. These are UAVs that will fly alongside traditional fighter planes like the F-35, the new NGAD (next generation air dominance) aircraft in design, and bomber aircraft (like the B-21). Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Anduril, and General Atomics are competing on this program (with platforms like the XQ-58 Valkyrie, the MQ-28 Ghost Bat, X-47B, the Furry drone, and the Gambit drone). These drones will carry missiles, bombs, electronic warfare systems, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) packages into contested areas. Contracts are set to be issued later this year and the Air Force wants to buy 1,000 of these drones.

Hermeus will fly their Quarterhorse hypersonic UAV later this year. And DARPA flew their Longshot UAV in December. The Longshot is engineered to carry air-to-air missiles, be launched from a manned aircraft in flight, and intercept enemy planes in combat. We don’t have good specifications for these, but they seem to fit in the MALE category.

Then, there’s the Venom program at the Air Force. The first three F-16 fighter planes have arrived at Elgin AFB, to be modified for unmanned flight. Another three F-16s will be modified later. These planes will become “loyal wingmen” for the F-35, to test-out equipment and tactics related to the CCA program above. A pilot will be in the cockpit, accomplish take off, turn the flight controls over to a computer system, and observe the aircraft and how it flies itself on missions. These are existing fighter planes, not drones like we are discussing here, but now you know about them.

The U.S. Navy has been testing the MQ-25 carrier-based refueling tanker drone. It can carry 16,000 pounds of jet fuel and refuel fighter planes in flight without pilots or crew. The Navy wants to buy four more in the future. Compare this to the KQ-X refueling drone project at DARPA. And, take a look at the Air Force NGAS program (Next Generation Air-refueling System), the KC-Z (the “Z” does not stand for balloon here). Data and technology gathered from the MQ-25 and the KQ-X programs could be integrated into NGAS, resulting in a big unmanned aerial refueling tanker that replaces the present KC-135 and KC-46 tankers in the future. And, engineers are playing with designs for large unmanned military cargo planes too.

Now, things get complicated so we have to make up our next category. Let’s call it the LASE class (low-altitude/short-endurance). These drones have a wingspan of about 10 feet or less and can be used for ISR systems and weapons delivery. They include the UTAP-22 Mako, the X-61A Gremlin, the Airwolf, and the Firejet. These are in preliminary testing. No planned purchases or cost figures have been released. The U.S. Army, Marines, Air Force, and 29 other countries use the RQ-11 Raven reconnaissance drone (4.5 feet wingspan). They cost about $35,000 each. The Army, Marines, and 26 other countries fly the Puma reconnaissance drone. They have a wingspan of 9 feet, carry electro-optical and infrared cameras, and more than 1,000 have been built. The cost of three Puma RQ-20 aircraft and two ground control stations is $250,000. The Army has terminated the RQ-11 Raven and RQ-7 Shadow drone programs, to be replaced with something else.

Also in this category, we have small drones (with wingspans of about 3 feet), including the quadcopters. Many hobby and commercial quadcopters are being outfitted for military ISR and weapons applications, so it’s impossible to list them all here. There are many different versions being built, and they are called FPV drones (first person view) or loitering munitions (LM). They range from ISR drones, that use electro-optical and infrared cameras to send back targeting data to missile and artillery units, to kamikaze drones that autonomously fly around, find their targets, and attack enemy tanks or bunkers or supply depots. One example is the Switchblade drone used by the U.S. Army. It has a range of 24 miles, can fly for about 40 minutes, has a ceiling of about 15,000 feet, a wingspan of about 30 inches, a length of 51 inches, and a cost of $6,000 per unit in low volume. The Army just ordered 100 of the latest version, the Switchblade 600. FPV drones have been used extensively by Ukraine and Russia.

The Pentagon initiated a massive program for this class of drone called “Replicator”. In March, the 2024 defense budget allocated $200 million to this program, with $500 million planned for 2025. After that, they plan to spend $1 billion on Replicator. They expect to award contracts for the first batch of aircraft later this year. After testing and evaluation, the Pentagon wants many thousands of these UAVs. To give you an idea about the volumes planned in this UAV class, Ukraine wants 1 million of these FPV drones in the next 12 months, to use in their war with Russia. A European coalition of nine countries (Latvia, Ukraine, Netherlands, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany) have pledged to build and deliver those 1 million FPV drones over the next 12 months. We will see millions of these drones built over the next few years. There are 195 countries in the world today. According to the New America website, and their drone database, more than 50 countries fly UAVs today, and more than 36 countries have armed drones. From my reading, it looks like the only country not developing military ISR and weaponized drones in this class is the Vatican.

Two more classes of drones to go, so we have to borrow some designations from the commercial drone industry to close this out. Micro-drones are about the size of a bird while Nano-drones are about the size of an insect. In the micro category, we have the Maveric drone. It has a 30-inch wingspan, can fly for an hour, carries a camera and communications link, and looks like a hawk in flight. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and intelligence groups have bought a few of them.

Finally we have Nano-drones, about the size of hummingbirds or insects. In the hummingbird category, look at the PD-100 Black Hornet. It weighs a little over 1 ounce, can fit in the palm of your hand, can fly for 20 minutes, and carries an electro-optical camera, an infrared camera, and a communications link. Since 2018, the U.S. Army has spent $125 million on these little birds. Over 20,000 have been built and are in use in 40 countries. Some of them are being used by soldiers in Ukraine today.

In the insect-size category, the CIA made some UAVs that look like dragonflies. They called them “insectothopters.” But, they were so lightweight that they had trouble flying in the wind so the project was dropped. If you want to see what could happen if these tiny UAVs and quadcopters are weaponized, go watch the “Slaughterbots” video on YouTube. This is where I would apply the unused “I” aircraft designation. These platforms could be labelled IQR-XX (insect UAV, reconnaissance) or IQM-XX (insect UAV, weaponized).

And one more thing before we go. Take a look at the DARPA ALTA program (adaptable lighter than air) and the Pentagon’s COLD STAR program (covert long-dwell stratospheric architecture). These are balloons that can carry intelligence collection equipment above 60,000 feet and operate for weeks or months. These are the “Z” platforms in the aircraft designation alphabet, so my job is now complete.

There you have it. Consider this article as a primer on this topic. If you want to dig into it deeper, here’s a vector you can follow. Fortune Business Insights (a market research company) says that the worldwide military UAV market was $12.55 billion in 2022, growing to $35.6 billion by 2030 (a compound annual growth rate of 14.1%). There are several other market research reports on the web with other perspectives worth exploring too.

So, let’s wrap this up. It looks like 30 or 40 large HALE drones might be built over the next few years, 80 to 100 medium MALE drones could be built, and millions of small LASE fixed-wing and quadcopter ISR and weaponized drones will come off the production lines. A few bird-sized micro drones could be built, and thousands of nano-humingbird drones will probably be bought. But I don’t see much happening with nano-dragonfly drones. And who knows what the Pentagon is cooking-up in their black budgets (highly classified programs).

We’re going to see major drone attacks on the battlefield of the future. That has inspired a host of projectile, laser, and HPM (high power microwave) anti-drone weapons development. But, that ’s a topic for another article.

Next time, we’ll pull together the information on radar systems, sonar systems, and electronic warfare systems markets. After writing this article, I get paranoid every time I see a hummingbird or a dragonfly. l've started looking for tiny cameras in their eyes and antennas sticking out of their little bodies. And, I listen for the sound of miniature electric motors humming.


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