Disarmament Committee Briefing

The Question of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), colloquially known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by computers in the vehicle or under the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. The typical launch and recovery method or “Pop and Stop” of an unmanned aircraft is by the function of an automatic system or an external operator on the ground.

There are a wide variety of UAV shapes, sizes, configurations, and characteristics. Historically, UAVs were simple remotely piloted aircraft, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed.

They are deployed predominantly for military and special operation applications, but also used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as policing and firefighting, and nonmilitary security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft.


There has been a rapid growth globally in the acquisition and development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Approximately 80 countries have UAVs, of which fewer than a dozen operate systems that can be armed, according to the Ministry of Defence. The US General Accounting Office estimates the number of countries with UAVs has increased from approximately 41 in 2004 to at least 76 countries in 2012.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, are remotely piloted aircraft or systems. They range from simple hand-operated short-range systems to long endurance, high altitude systems that require an airstrip. UAVs have civil and commercial uses but this note looks only at their military role.

Their primary role is Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) or Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR). A handful of systems may also be armed. The only armed UAV used by the UK Armed Forces is the Reaper and it is only used in Afghanistan.

The growth in usage of armed UAVs, and their use by the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, raises a number of moral, ethical and legal issues. Remotely piloted aircraft operate on the same rules of engagement as manned aircraft. There are no fully autonomous UAVs in operation.

Conventional wisdom states that UAVs offer two main advantages over manned aircraft: they are considered more cost-effective, and they minimize the risk to a pilot’s life. However, the current UAV accident rates (the rate at which the aircraft are lost or damaged) is 100 times that of manned aircraft.

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