Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, are aircraft that are remotely controlled by one or more operators who fly the aircraft, control sensors and/or weapons, and coordinate the mission as necessary. UAVs are unmanned only in the sense that humans are not physically on-board the aircraft. Most United States government drones are used for surveillance (i.e., maintaining close observation of a subject) and are equipped with sensors capable of observing at a distance, such as high-resolution cameras. Not all drones carry weapons. Those that do carry weapons, however, generally receive specific instructions based on detailed intelligence before striking with precision guided munitions or “smart” bombs, which are highly accurate missiles that use guidance systems (i.e., directions from satellites or other aircraft) that can adjust their paths during flight.
In the past, the CIA has used the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drone models. The MQ-1 Predator can carry two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. It also utilizes a Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS), which combines multiple tools for surveillance, target acquisition and tracking, rangefinding, and laser designation for missile strikes. The MTS includes:
- Infrared sensors that detect thermal energy or specific light wavelengths on the infrared spectrum, allowing them to recognize humans or other targets from long distances;
- Color daylight and near infrared TV cameras that record high definition video data;
- Laser designators that can identify targets in day or nighttime conditions, estimate range, and calculate a target’s location using GPS capabilities; and
- Laser illuminators, which are large, focused military lights that illuminate an area of interest with a laser beam.
The MQ-9 Reaper utilizes the same Multi-Spectral Targeting System as the Predator, but also features a maritime surveillance radar. It can carry four Hellfire missiles, Paveway II Laser-Guided Bombs (LGB), or Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).