Military Drones: Innovation Project


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), popularly known as drones, have revolutionized modern-day wars and the approach that is used to collect data, especially in locations deemed unsafe for military personnel. When a country goes to war, the primary goal, besides winning the war, is to minimize casualties to its soldiers as much as possible. With the invention of surface-to-air missiles and airborne aircraft destroyers, it is not safe to use pilots to launch attacks in territories controlled by the enemy. As such, advanced military units such as those of the United States, Russia, and some European countries rely on drones. This innovative military concept makes it possible to launch an attack and gather intelligence using smaller aircraft that cannot be easily detected and do not need pilots to fly. In this study, the focus will be on General Atomics and Northrop Grumman drones

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General Atomics Drones

General Atomics, according to Scheff, is a firm that specializes in nuclear physics, often conducting research and manufacturing of military hardware and software meant for combat or intelligence gathering (45). Started in 1955 in San Diego, the firm has expanded rapidly and it is currently one of the main defense contractors not only to the United States government but also in other countries around the world. The firm is known to produce Predator drones, which are effective on battlefields. One of their drones, which has gained massive popularity is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper shown in figure 1 below. This drone is different from its predecessors because of its capacity to carry larger weapons and to fly long distances to deliver bombs. With a 950-shaft horsepower turboprop, its speed is also impressive, especially when executing an ambush (Chandler 34). The company has other models of military drones meant for combat and intelligence gathering.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.
Figure 1. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (Chandler 69).

Northrop Grumman Drones

Northrop Grumman is an aerospace and defense technology firm that was founded in 1994 following Northrop’s acquisition of Grumman (Cortright et al. 76). The firm has achieved massive success while working closely with the United States military and THE National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its products are classified into four categories, Aerospace Systems, Innovation Systems, Technology and Service, Mission Systems. In this paper, the focus will be on unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military forces. One of its popular drones is the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk (Faust 75). It is specifically meant for military intelligence gathering. One of the unique characteristics of this drone that sets it apart from others is its capacity to survey large areas within a short time. It is reported that RQ-4, shown in figure 2 below, can survey 40,000 square miles of terrain within a day (Masutti and Tomasello 112).

Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Figure 2. Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk (Faust 82).


It is crucial to analyze this invention to understand its genesis and relevance in modern society. According to Grundvig, the Austrian forces developed the first concept of a military drone in 1849 when trying to take control of Venice (39). The Austrian military was keen on invading the enemy without using its soldiers. It was considered a safer way of fighting a formidable enemy. The fact that these first aerial unmanned vehicles were in the form of balloons, relied on wind speed and direction, which was its main undoing. Although the balloon carrier was not as successful as was expected, it was the beginning of the development of modern-day drones. Dayton-Wright Airplane Company was one of the earliest companies to focus on large-scale production of military drones, the aerial torpedo (Cooke 64). However, the invention was not very effective in aggressive battles, making the military jets more preferable during World War I and World War II (Kreps 28).

After the Second World War, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) focused on the production of war-efficient drones as a way of reducing risks to their pilots. The vehicle was also more effective in spying in foreign countries or collecting intelligence within the borders. Many firms are now specializing in the production of both military and civilian drones. The underlying goal of this invention was to make it easy for the defense forces to deliver bombs without using pilots. It meant that even if the enemy shot down the drone within their territory, the explosives would go off and cause some form of damage. Modern-day drones such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper are highly advanced.


When the United States gained independence in 1776, most of the European colonizers were keen to explore new territories while protecting the new ones. One of the territorial wars fought in Europe before the First World War was the War of Gradisca (Scheff 81). In this fight, Austrian soldiers got the support of the Spanish forces to fight Venetians who were believed to be pirates. Venetians sought the support of the Dutch and English forces to protect their territory. When the Austrians realized that their forces were outnumbered, they sought innovative ways of fighting the enemy. They realized that they could not use their soldiers to launch attacks. As such, they developed balloon carriers meant to transport explosives from their territory to the targeted locations occupied by the enemy (Chandler 42).

The condition that the Austrian soldiers faced (limited number of well-trained soldiers) meant that they could not win in a conventional war. They had to be innovative to win the war. The concept did not succeed in killing a large number of the enemy as was intended. However, it had a profound effect (Faust 36). The Austrians had demonstrated their advanced technology on the battlefield, which caused fear in the enemy camps. They won the war, and the invention was refined to what it is today. It was a clear demonstration that with advanced technology, the number of soldiers on the battlefield does not define the winner. Companies such as General Atomics and Northrop Grumman have taken this technology to the next level.

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Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk was invented primarily to gather intelligence. The designers had to deliver a vehicle that could travel long distances, collect aerial data without detection, and transmit the information in real-time. In case the drone is shot down or it develops mechanical problems before traveling back to the base, the information will be available to the relevant agency. On the other hand, General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper was meant to destroy enemy establishments. Grundvig explains that it was meant to play a zero-sum game with the enemy (36). If the enemy fails to detect the plane, the bomb will be dropped on the target. In case they detect it and decide to bring it down anyway, the explosives will still go off and cause some damage.


General Atomics is responsible for the production of the MQ-9 Reaper, which is specifically meant for military combat. The firm often sells these drones to the United States Department of Defense. On the other hand, Northrop Grumman is responsible for the production of RQ-4, which is meant for intelligence gathering. The United States Air Force was responsible for developing the prototype and the first drone meant for monitoring geographic information of a given area. However, USAF later handed over the project to Northrop Grumman as a way of enhancing its efficiency. Its main clients are the United States government and other selected foreign governments, especially in Western Europe. It is important to note that other businesses around the world also produce drones performing similar services even if the performance capacity may vary. Boeing Co. (BA), Lockheed Martin Corp., and Yuneec International are some of the top global players in the business of designing and manufacturing drones (Masutti and Tomasello 44). It is necessary to mention that most of these global rivals specialize in drones meant for civilian use. These drones can be used to deliver letters, small parcels, or to conduct a non-military survey.

Major Reasons Why the Innovation Has Been Successful

The innovation has been a huge success around the world, and Cooke notes that it is destined to be one of the biggest industries in the coming years (73). One of the reasons why this innovation has been successful in the military sector is that it enables the military to fight an enemy without sending troops to the hostile territory. The fact that these drones can execute an aerial attack means that a small military unit can fight a large army and realize success. The traditional approach of gathering intelligence required the physical presence of officers in the enemy territory, which exposed them to a serious threat. However, the ability to use these drones to survey the activities of the enemy in a given location makes the process of gathering intelligence simple and safe. The support from different players, especially the government of the United States, has also made it achieve success, as discussed in the section below. The continued wars in the Middle East and the emergence of organized terror groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda have help in increasing the demand for these products.


MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 are some of the most advanced drones currently in use in the armed forces. The projects of developing these two drones were by each of the companies as a business venture. General Atomics as a military contractor that specializes in nuclear physics, needed to develop a drone with a high capacity and greater efficiency than those that were existing at that time. With support from the United States government, the company invested its resources into the project and developed a drone superior to those in the same category. Northrop Grumman was also interested in meeting the emerging needs in intelligence gathering.

The company funded the production of RQ-4 after acquiring it from the United States Air Force, which was responsible for the design of the project and the initial productions. Both companies also got direct support from their customers. The fact that these customers have been purchasing these drones since their inception means that the companies have the financial capacity and goodwill in the market to continue with the production. As Kreps notes, a firm can only continue with its productions if there is a market for the products (62). The demand for MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 is growing, which gives these firms an incentive to continue with their production.

Estimated Total Cost of the Innovation

The cost of designing and producing an unmanned aerial vehicle varies depending on its purpose, size, and any other special request that a customer may make. The unit cost of Northrop Grumman RQ-4, which also includes the cost of research, is the US $ 222.7 million. The firm has been selling these products to the United States Air Force, NATO, and NASA. Since its inception in 1998, the firm has spent over the US $ 10 billion in the production of these drones. It is important to note that RQ-4 was originally designed and produced by the United States Air Force. The cost indicated above includes what the government spent while running the project until 2014 when it was officially handed over to Northrop Grumman. The current manufacturer has met the cost of production of these drones since then. The unit cost of producing General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is the US $ 16.9 million. From 2001 when the program was started to date, the company has spent over the US $ 11.8 billion in the construction of these drones.


Innovative projects often go through various processes, from the idea stage to the final phase when the product is realized. RQ-4 was a concept that was developed by the United States Air Force. During the 1990s, the United States was involved in various wars, some of which were outside the American continent. They included the Gulf War, War in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo (Scheff 78). The government was keen on avoiding a repeat of the heavy loss of lives experienced during the Vietnam War. It was necessary to conduct thorough surveillance to identify enemies’ strongholds and their activities before launching attacks. As such, it was necessary to develop an aerial surveillance system that did not require human piloting. They developed RQ-3 Dark Star and RQ-4 Global Hawk to help in gathering intelligence. The RQ-4 was favored over RQ-3 because it was more advanced. The Air Force continued with the production until the project was handed over to Northrop Grumman in 2014 to enhance efficiency.

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During the same period discussed above, it was necessary for the United States to engage directly in these wars. However, it was necessary to reduce the number of soldiers in extremely hostile areas, and as such, MQ-9 Reaper became critical. In 2001 when the United States and allied forces declared war on Afghanistan after the Al Qaeda attack, the United States Air Force signed a deal with General Atomics for the production of Predator Bs. They were meant to facilitate the attack on the enemy without relying on pilots. It significantly reduced casualties among American soldiers in the foreign land. The drone has been disseminated to friendly forces, especially NATO member states to help in their aerial defense.

Operating Challenges and Annual Sales

General Atomics and Northrop Grumman have faced various challenges in their normal operations. Kreps explains that firms that produce military drones face similar challenges (59). One of these challenges is the possibility of these unmanned aerial vehicles landing in the hands of enemies. In the recent past, ISIS and Al Qaeda forces have been seen using sophisticated weapons meant for a friendly government. When these products are sold to corrupt or weak governments, especially those in the Middle East, criminal gangs, and terror groups can easily have access to them. The drones are meant to protect the United States and its allies. However, without proper check, enemies can use it against the country or its troops sent to fight in the foreign land. Such cases may affect the sale of these products in the global market.

It is also important to note that General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper is currently meant to launch missiles. It means that during times of peace, the demand for the product can drop significantly. A strict government policy is another issue. These firms can only sell their products to institutions approved by the government. The sensitive nature of these military drones makes it difficult for the public to know annual sales made by the companies because sometimes the information is classified. However, the continued growth of these companies shows that they are making impressive sales. The financial records provided by the companies show their overall annual performance without specifying the annual sales of the drones discussed above.


The invention of drones has transformed the modern-day battlefield and intelligence gathering. The value of this innovation has always and will remain to be efficiency and safety in military combat and intelligence gathering. It is important to ensure that the United States military and other pertinent government agencies such as the Central Investigation Agency (CIA) and Federal Investigation Bureau (FBI) have the capacity to gather critical information meant to protect the country and its allies. Using spies is still popular, but technology is proving effective in gathering facts about physical activities taking place in a given location. Without exposing intelligence agents to harm, these agencies can determine the physical plans of the enemy and the ability to strike the country using different types of weapons. Counteractive measures can then be taken within the right time to ensure that civilians and property are protected. The current value was anticipated beforehand. The desire to be invisible on the battlefield has been realized by these drones.

Future Social and Commercial Impact

Military drones will continue to have an impact on global society. From a social angle, the global society is set to enjoy peace when these drones are used constructively. Criminal activities will be monitored with ease and corrective measures taken to protect Americans. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 caused serious social unrest in the United States, as the government could not monitor the activities of the enemy effectively despite being a neighboring country. However, these drones will solve the problem. The innovation will also have commercial implications. Currently, these firms only focus on producing drones meant for use by military forces. The impressive performance of these firms means that they are making a positive impact on the economy through the tax they pay and the employment they create in the country. They can have a great commercial impact if they can find products that can be sold to civilian institutions.

Works Cited

Chandler, Matt. Military Drones. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Cooke, Tim. A Timeline of Military Robots and Drones. Capstone Press, 2018.

Cortright, David, et al., editors. Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict: Ethical, Legal, and Strategic Implications. The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

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Faust, Daniel R. Military Drones. PowerKids Press, 2016.

Grundvig, James. Dolphin Drone: A Military Thriller. Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.

Kreps, Sarah. Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford university press, 2016.

Masutti, Anna, and Filippo Tomasello, editors. International Regulation of Non-Military Drones. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2018.

Scheff, Matt. Military Drones. Oxford University Press, 2019.

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