Unmanned flights predate manned flights, but the limits of the technology have – until now – made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) vulnerable and therefore unsuitable for large-scale military use.
Russia has used hundreds of drones to target Ukrainian cities and critical national infrastructure.
The missiles, each costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, fly fast, are difficult to shoot down and carry a huge explosive charge.
But when the reserves ran out, the Russians imported Shahid 136 drones from Iran. These UAVs are slow and vulnerable to small arms fire, but can be used as a swarm to overwhelm defenses – and some get through.
The Ukrainians have also exploited UAVs to target Russian logistics hubs to great effect, most recently targeting a fuel storage facility in Crimea and another just east of the Kerch bridge that connects Crimea to Russia.
As early as 1794, observation balloons were used as an aerial platform for gathering intelligence and spotting artillery, and in the First World War, Royal Flying Corps aircraft took advantage of this opportunity to launch hand grenades at enemy trench positions.
Surveillance technology has advanced rapidly – taking advantage of advances in the space and satellite markets – with sensors becoming lighter, more powerful and with reduced energy requirements.
Technology – and its rapid exploitation – has given Ukraine an asymmetric advantage in this conflict.
Although the United States leads the way in terms of high-end UAVs, the world leader in the mass market is China, and with rapid advances in artificial intelligence capability, UAVs look set to become a military capability to table, high volume and profitable.
However, the conflict in Ukraine highlighted the dramatic potential of UAVs, which have yet to capitalize on the rapid advances in artificial intelligence.
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