In the 21st century, the word ‘drone’ has more than one connotation. While the photography quadcopter is the most widely recognized and available form, drones have been used on the battlefield for a long time. The earlier drones may not have resembled the sophisticated technology like today, but the concept of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in warfare is not new. Let’s take a look at how drones used in warfare have evolved over the last century and a half.

The Evolution of Warfare Drones

Drones have been used in battle, directly or indirectly, since the mid-1800s. At a time when manned flight was far from the reach of mankind, drones were used for the first time to capture a city. In 1849, the Austrian Navy used 200 explosive gas-filled balloons to capture Venice. This was the first time in history when such a feat was attempted. In the 1900s when manned flight technology had advanced, the United States government began exploring the applications of drone technology.

Pilotless Torpedoes

Governments began developing pilotless torpedoes during the first World War. These torpedoes were essentially unmanned self-propelled aircraft that were used for target practice. In the first World War, the Dayton-Wright Airlines Company invented the first pilotless torpedo. After the first war, companies and governments began actively developing drone technology.

The drone that conducted the first airstrike in 1944
The first drone strike that took place in 1944

In World War II, both the German and Allied forces relied on drones to train their aircraft gunners and to assist in missions. This trend was carried forward during the Vietnam war where the US created unmanned spy planes to reduce the risk of casualties of manned pilots.

Kamikaze or Suicide Drones

Kamikaze drones, known as loitering munitions, are drones that carry an explosive payload and self-destruct upon impact. They are based on the principle of missiles but can loiter around a specific area like a drone and attack when the target is located. Loitering munitions fit in the niche between cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) sharing characteristics with both. These drones return to base if they have sufficient fuel left.

The Terminator UAV by Lockheed Martin
The Terminator UAV by Lockheed Martin

Suicide drones have gained the spotlight after a radical group called the Houthi Rebels from Yemen, used these against Saudi Arabia. The rebel group has destroyed more than one crucial oil plant of Saudi Arabia, using these drones.

The Israeli forces are also known to use these drones as part of their military arsenal. Fourteen countries including Taiwan, U.S, and China are in possession of loitering munitions at present.

Military Drones

The most famous military drone of all is the Predator or MQ-9 Reaper drone developed by the United States government. The drone is designed by company General Atomics and its last on-field operation was seen in 2020 when it assassinated an Iranian General.

The Predator (MQ-9 Reaper) Drone
The Predator (MQ-9 Reaper) Drone

The Predator drone is equipped with four laser-guided missiles, Air-to-ground Missiles, and 114 Hellfire missiles. The drone is a long endurance vehicle as it can operate at an altitude of 50,000ft with a 1,150-mile range. Read more about the Predator drone.

Apart from the Predator, several countries have developed long-endurance drones such as China’s Wing Loong – 10 and Heron drones by Israel. Australia has also developed the Loyal Wingman drone from a collaboration with Boeing.

Weapon-Mounted Drones

Weapon-mounted drones are a new area of development where weapons like semi-automatic rifles are perched on multi-rotor drones. The drones are calibrated and manually controlled to act as an unmanned counter unit on the frontline. While this concept is relatively new, countries like Russia and China are already in pursuit of developing such a drone.

Image only for representation

In 2020, China carried out a military drill that consisted of a multirotor drone equipped with a grenade launcher. The country has also perched AK-47 rifles to stealth fighter jets for unmanned operation.

In 2018, Russia tested its AK-47 drones as well. The fixed-wing drones have AK-47 rifles attached to them. The combat drones can not only fire at targets but chase them down until the target has been terminated.


We have advanced significantly from pilotless torpedoes that were used for target practice. Countries across the world have begun a race to make autonomous combat solutions. With the increasing number of combat drones, violent conflicts in the future may no longer require the direct inclusion of human soldiers.