Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought

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Mass-market military drones are one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023. Explore the rest of the list here.

When the United States first fired a missile from an armed Predator drone at suspected Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan on November 14, 2001, it was clear that warfare had permanently changed. During the two decades that followed, drones became the most iconic instrument of the war on terror. Highly sophisticated, multimillion-dollar US drones were repeatedly deployed in targeted killing campaigns. But their use worldwide was limited to powerful nations.

Then, as the navigation systems and wireless technologies in hobbyist drones and consumer electronics improved, a second style of military drone appeared—not in Washington, but in Istanbul. And it caught the world’s attention in Ukraine in 2022, when it proved itself capable of holding back one of the most formidable militaries on the planet. 

The Bayraktar TB2 drone, a Turkish-made aircraft from the Baykar corporation, marks a new chapter in the still-new era of drone warfare. Cheap, widely available drones have changed how smaller nations fight modern wars. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought these new weapons into the popular consciousness, there’s more to their story.

Explosions in Armenia, broadcast on YouTube in 2020, revealed this new shape of war to the world. There, in a blue-tinted video, a radar dish spins underneath cyan crosshairs until it erupts into a cloud of smoke. The action repeats twice: a crosshair targets a vehicle mounted with a spinning dish sensor, its earthen barriers no defense against aerial attack, leaving an empty crater behind.

The clip, released on YouTube on September 27, 2020, was one of many the Azerbaijan military published during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which it launched against neighboring Armenia that same day. The video was recorded by the TB2.

It encompasses all the horrors of war, with the added voyeurism of an unblinking camera.

In that conflict and others, the TB2 has filled a void in the arms market created by the US government’s refusal to export its high-end Predator family of drones. To get around export restrictions on drone models and othe...

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