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Since 1917, United States military services have researched and employed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Over that time, they have been called drones, robot planes, pilotless aircraft, RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles), RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) and other terms describing aircraft that fly under control with no person aboard. They are most often called UAVs, and when combined with ground control stations and data links, from UAS, or unmanned aerial systems.
The US Department of Defence (DOD) defines UAVs as powered, aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator, use aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expandable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. Ballistic or semi-ballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered UAVs by the DOD definition.  UAVs are either described as a single air vehicle (with associated surveillance sensors), or a UAV system (UAS), which usually consists of three to six air vehicles, a ground control station, and support equipment.
The use of UAS in conflicts such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and humanitarian relief operations such as Haiti, revealed the advantages and disadvantages provided by unmanned aircraft. Long considered experimental in military operations, UAS are now making national headlines as they are used in ways normally reserved for manned aircraft. Conventional wisdom states that UAS offer two main advantages over manned aircraft: they are considered more cost-effective, and they minimize the risk to a pilot’s life. For these reasons and others, US DOD’s unmanned craft inventory increased more than 40-fold from 2002 to 2010.
UAVs range from the size of an insect to that of a commercial airliner. DOD currently possesses five UAVs in large numbers: the Air Force’s Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk, and the Army’s Hunter and shadow. Other key UAV developmental efforts include the Air Force’s RQ-170 Sentinel, the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), MQ-8 Fire Scout, and Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV, and the Marine Corps’s Small Tactical Unmanned Aerial System.
Military considerations include the proper pace, scope, and management of DOD UAS procurement; appropriate investment priorities for UAS versus manned aircraft; UAS future roles and applications; legal issues arising from the use of UAS; issues of operational control and data management; personnel issues; industrial base issues; and technology proliferation.
UAS use has increased for a number of reasons. Advanced navigation and communications technologies were not available just a few years ago, and increases in military communications satellite bandwidth have made remote operation of UAS more practical. The nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has also increased the demand for UAS, as identification of and strikes against targets hiding among civilian populations required persistent surveillance and prompt strike capability, to minimize collateral damage. Further, UAS provide an asymmetrical-and comparatively invulnerable-technical advantage in these conflicts.