Unmanned aerial vehicles have lately been generating headlines as never before. When a Predator fired a Hellfire missile into a car full of suspected terrorists in Yemen last November, it seemed a watershed validation of the “hunt and destroy” role for UAVs. Days before the start of the Iraq war, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that an Iraqi UAV program uncovered by weapons inspectors could be a means for delivering biological or chemical weapons—though the technology was reported by The New York Times to be painfully primitive. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of American UAVs would soon be demonstrated: When U.S. troops reached Baghdad’s doorstep, 10 or more types of UAV were with them, ranging from backpackable, soldier-launched recon vehicles to the warhorse Global Hawk surveillance craft and the Predator, which knocked out an anti-aircraft gun.

UAVs are here, more are coming, and they will ultimately transform aviation, military and civil. The concept is surprisingly old: In 1935, PopSci described “thrilled crowds” in England watching an RAF demonstration of a radio-controlled biplane with a 10-mile range. “Spectacular wartime possibilities are forecast” for robot aircraft, the article noted.
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