Death From Above: The Next-Generation Drone Warfare

Being Phantom Ray Drone

Even with drones already dominating the skies, neutralizing adversariesand covertly collecting data, new research is still underway on the generation of pilotless planes to come.

And the United States isn’t the only country interested in developing long-range and lethal drone technology.

Groups of European  and Asian nations — allies and former adversaries alike — are busy investing in next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles of their own.

These UAVs — some in development, some testing, and some already in service — are part of a global competition to gain aerial superiority.

But right now, only a handful of companies are working seriously on this next wave of drones. Some are researching independently, some are working for a single nation, others are working for a dozen.

Here’s the top tier of next-gen drone tech.

Northrop Grumman X-47B

The strike fighter was developed by Northrop Grumman as part of a research contract awarded in 2007. Look for these in use for the Navy, which hopes to use them as carrier-based drones. Tests for that begin in 2013.

National Origin: United States

Intended Customers:United States Military and clandestine services

Status: In development, used by Navy for testing

Cruise Speed: around 420 mph, (Mach 0.55)

Wingspan: 62 ft

Range: At least 2,400 miles

Boeing Phantom Ray

The project was hatched in 2007, and was carried out in utmost secrecy. The drone’s development was funded internally, without funding from the government of military. The Boeing Phantom Ray, which precedes the development of the Phantom Eye, is Boeing’s planned ground strike and surveillance drone.

National Origin: United States

Intended Customers: United States Military and clandestine services

Status: In development, maiden flight April 27, 2011

Cruise Speed: 614 mph (Mach 0.8)

Wingspan: 50 ft

Range: 1500 miles

General Atomics Predator C Avenger

General Atomics Predator C Avenger

General Atomics Courtesy Photo

This drone is incredible. The Predator line of drones currently in constant use in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first ever weaponized UAVs. This model follows up with a reduced heat signature and speed boosts. It boasts an upgraded “quick response armed reconnaissance capability” from its predecessors.

National Origin: United States

Intended Customers: United States Military and clandestine services

Status: Deployed. Maiden flight April 4, 2009

Max Speed: 460 mph

Wingspan: 66 ft

Range: 20 hours

BAE Systems Taranis

BAE Systems Taranis

Fun Fact: the Taranis is pictured here in an Anechoic chamber, a room which cancels out sound or electromagnetic waves. It’s used for calibration, testing, and measurements.

BAE Systems Courtesy Photo

BAE Systems, a major supplier of aircraft to the Royal Air Force, began development of their drone after being allocated funds from the British Ministry of Defense. The project also involves General Electric and Rolls Royce, and the aircraft is named after theCeltic god of thunder.

National Origin: United Kingdom

Intended Customers: United Kingdom

Status: Ground tests complete, Flight trials upcoming

Cruising Speed: Unknown

Wingspan: 30 ft.

Range: Expected intercontinental

Dassault nEUROn

The name refers to intended buyers of the planned drone, theEuropean community. Flight tests were planned for last year but were delayed to late 2012. Pictured here is a replica of the aircraft, as the project is being closely protected by manufacturer Dassault.

National Origin: France

Intended Customers: Euro-zone nations, especially France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Greece.

Status: Maiden flight planned for 2012

Cruising Speed: Undetermined, Top speed 0.8 Mach

Wingspan: 41 ft

Range: Unknown

EADS Cassidian Barracuda

The Barracuda is a project of German and Spain to develop a ground-attack drone. The test model, despite a successful maiden voyage, crashed into the Atlantic is late 2006. Germany initiated the program with Spain after abstaining from involvement in the nEUROn project for fiscal reasons.

National Origin: Germany and Spain

Intended Customers: Euro-zone nations, especially Germany and Spain, possibly Italy and Sweden.

Status: Maiden flight April 2006. Remains in development.

Cruising Speed: Uncertain, Top Speed 0.85 mach

Wingspan: 24 ft

Range: Unknown

Mikoyan Skat

Made by Mikoyan — formerly MiG — the Skat was developed as one of two concept drones for the Russian government. Skat means “manta ray” in Russian, and the aircraft would be used against enemy air defenses and as an attack drone. Development was discontinued recently.

National Origin: Russia

Intended Customers: Russia

Status: Discontinued. Work on Russian drone project to be continued by Sukhoi Holding.

Cruising Speed: N/A, Top Speed was 500 mph

Wingspan: 37 ft

Range: N/A

Lockheed Martin RQ-170

Details on this one are sparse, mostly because the RQ-170 was developed by Lockheed Martin for covert use. A significant setback occurred with the capture of one in-service RQ-170 by Iran. The Air Force, which uses the RQ-170 already for surveillance purposes, has contracted Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs to make the drones.

National Origin: United States

Intended Customers: United States Military and clandestine services

Status: In service with U.S. Air Force. One allegedly crash landed, and is in Iranian possession

Top Speed: Information unavailable

Wingspan: around 39 ft

Range: Information Unavailable

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