Low entry costs have led to rapid growth in numbers of unmanned air vehicles in development or available to buy – for military and civil use. Here is our guide to 100 leading programmes on the market.

The four years since Flight International launched its annual unmanned air vehicle directory have seen extraordinary growth in the variety of platform concepts being developed around the world. There are, even from a conservative analysis, something like 450 individual platform types at meaningful stages of development by industrial, research and scientific development organisations inter--nationally.

That 450 number excludes target drones, as well as the vast numbers of platforms in development by the education sector as part of training programmes for new generations of engineers and technical personnel.

The primary driver for this growth boom is a unique combination of low market entry barriers, readily available technologies, perceived marketplace potential, and the gradual development of favourable regulatory arrangements permitting flight.

Balancing that growth in platform types, however, is a relatively cautious, if not restrained purchasing  community, apart from where clearly definable needs allow acquisition of systems or services in the near to medium term. The military community, particularly NATO member states, dominate current buyers, given the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, outside the USA most military UAV fleet development is proceeding at only a moderate pace.

In parallel there is a trend that once a system enters service, there is a tendency for users to operate it for extended periods with regular technology refreshes instead of buying new aircraft. This is particularly true of larger tactical class types in military use and means that any broad examination of the UAV sector needs to deal with timeframes that sometimes extend back across two decades.

This edition of the UAV directory has sought to balance these disparate patterns by limiting numbers to a core 100 platform types. That number has been selected to provide a meaningful level of guidance to readers on trends within the sector, while continuing to make it possible for its inclusion within the magazine. A larger directory is to be released later this year electronically.

Selection of the 100 types included here have been based on four primary criteria. Precedence has been given in the first instance to systems in operational service with a customer of record – in most cases military organisations. Then come types that are under development on behalf of a customer or under the sponsorship of a major corporate or other funding entity, so the likelihood of their proceeding into full-rate production and operational service is high.

Third is a broad spectrum of new conceptual air vehicle types, to illustrate the breadth and depth of innovation being applied across the sector.

Lastly, we have sought to apply an extended geographical spread, incorporating platforms that reflect the differing economic and political factors at work in shaping the directions of the market.

UAV classifications in this directory are aligned with developing practice for the sector, but there is not yet a commonly agreed international nomenclature. As such terminology used may in some cases differ from those used by manufacturers and operators.

Mini-UAVs are defined as having a wingspan or maximum airframe of 0.5m (1.6ft) and below, and a range of around 2km (1nm). Close-range systems are those used to support surveillance and reconnaissance operations in flight profiles of less than 5km with a payload of below 5kg (11lb). Short-range UAVs are those platforms used in surveillance and reconnaissance operations in a flight profile of 5-20km with payloads of up to 10kg.

Tactical is used to denote a broad range of UAVs that operate at ranges of 20-200km with an endurance of at least 6h, with 12h commonplace. That range is dictated by requirements for line-of-sight radio communications. TUAV is an accepted acron-ym for tactical UAV, similarly VTUAV represents a vertical take-off and landing tactical UAV.

The terms “advanced tactical” or “medium tactical” describe systems capable of flying more than 12h at altitudes of up to 18,000ft. The class “low-altitude long-endurance” (LALE) denotes fixed-wing systems whose weight and size would normally be classified in the short range and tactical categories, but which can fly in excess of 24h and at altitudes of up to 20,000ft.

Medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) is used to designate UAVs, usually fixed wing, but with some rotary-wing systems in development, that can fly at least 15-20h above 18,000ft. Flights of up to 30h-plus are commonplace for some fixed-wing examples.

High-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs generally operate at 50,000ft and above with a typical endurance of at least 24h. High-altitude, long loiter (HALL) denotes UAVs fly at altitude for 36h or more over a limited geographic footprint.

Unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) are those types developed from the outset to perform the mission of manned fighter combat aircraft.
All dimensions are in metric. MTOW designates maximum take-off weight.

Source: Flight International