Why are drones suddenly so popular? New Technology?

Yes, modern drones are MUCH MUCH easier to fly. The smaller/lighter ones are also, dare I say it, more crash-worthy, too. As a result you have few crashes and the ones you do have don’t cost you the entire aircraft and/or $$$ in repairs (I know people who spend more on their RC aircraft a year than I ever did on full size aircraft. They can be pricey.

Add in GPS and easily used on-board cameras and you have a win.

Last I heard (I don’t keep up with this like I used to) the FAA is trying to draft rules on “unmanned aircraft” of all sizes, which might well start requiring licensing even for the small stuff.

I do think some regulation might be warranted - drones can be a hazard if they fall out of the sky on top of someone or crash into a bystander, there are legitimate privacy issues, opportunities for mayhem… I’d like to say we can trust the public but history seems to indicate otherwise.

When I was still flying indoor RC (mostly three-axis fixed wing for me but that category overlaps with small quads) one old geezer came up to me wanting my signature on some whacked-out petition or other with dire warnings that “they” were soon going to require a private pilot license just to fly itty bitty RC’s. I shrugged and remind him I have private pilot license already. There’s been lots of rumors and misinformation flying around for the past few years which just isn’t helping any.

Also, the rise of rare-earth magnets, making it possible to build compact, light electric motors that are powerful for their size.

That sounds familiar. It would be interesting to see how they define an ‘unmanned aircraft’. How will they differentiate between a ‘drone’ and an ‘R/C model’? If they aren’t careful, could they define Guillow’s balsa models as ‘unmanned aircraft’? How about paper airplanes? (Not suggesting a ‘slippery slope’, but ISTR instances of unintended consequences in the past.)

For good reason. All these same advances that made quadcopter drones cheap and common would help you arm a small drone with a weapon. You can use the same cheap servos and microcontrollers to aim a firearm (probably a lightweight rifle). The same HD camera that currently just takes pictures can act as a gunsight. The same GPUs that are embedded in every system on a chip can do realtime image processing in order to get target tracking. Cheap laser rangefinders can give you the range to the target, and you can check the IMU data to find where gravity is.

Open source software can let you cheaply build a system with target lock-on, correct for bullet trajectories at a distance, and do all the other things need to make a drone that can make deadly-accurate rifle shots.

You could then design all of the mechanical parts in this drone - the firing mechanism for the lightweight firearm, the mounts to hold the firearm, the mechanical parts to connect the servos that aim the firearm to the mounted gun, etc to be 3d printed. This would allow anyone to purchase a list of less than probably $1000 of off the shelf parts and build their own killer drone.

Amusingly the first defensive measure I can think of against this threat is to protect areas with computer controlled gun turrets to shoot down incoming killer drones, and then launch your own killer drones to hunt down the drone operator…

A rifle-armed drone would be considerably expensive. At least, one with a ‘killing’ rifle would be.

An AR-7 weighs a little more than a kilogram, and much of that is the stock. It’s a take-down rifle, so you can dispense with that easily. But it’s a .22 caliber, so not extremely useful as a man-killer. Can be done, has been done with .22 caliber; but not what you want to count on. You’d want something more powerful. With more powerful ammunition, you’ll need a heavier barrel and receiver. Something like an AR-15 (with the original ‘pencil’ barrel) would come in about five pounds, loaded. The 5.56 x 45 mm round can certainly kill someone, and can do it at a fair distance. But you’ll probably want something even more powerful like 7.62 NATO or, as was used in WWII, .30-06. Now you’re getting pretty heavy. You’ll need something big to lift the firearm, which means building a one-off instead of buying something ‘off the shelf’. R&D costs will be higher, and the components will be more expensive.

Now let’s say you build a drone armed with a capable rifle. You can take off, fly to a target, lock onto the target, and fire the lethal round. What happens when you pull the trigger? Recoil. Ever fire a .30-06? I haven’t, but I’ve fired .30-30 Winchesters and 7.92 mm Mausers. They have a bit of a kick. The recoil will knock your drone out of the sky. So you have to build a bigger, heavier drone to accommodate the recoil. More money. At least you don’t have to build one big enough for a machine gun.

Something like this is too small. This might be big enough for a battle rifle if the rifle is mounted to carry the recoil loads directly along the longitudinal axis. That particular UAV costs $750,000, but I’m sure someone could build an armed drone of that size more cheaply – but it’s still going to be a bundle.

I don’t believe that people are going to start building ‘killer drones’. Some people might build drones armed with something like an AR-7 just for the novelty. But I don’t see anyone using them as weapons.

What about one carrying a bomb eg a hand grenade that it could drop? Or even a suicide drone that actually is a bomb and just gets flown into the target?

I’ve been wondering about this ever since that drone at the football match. Since they’re so cheap and impossible to defend against, could a terrorist group prepare and arm hundreds of them and then release them all at once?

Grenade drones would be much simpler than a hunter/killer rifle-armed drone. All you’d have to do is have one large enough to carry one (they weigh about/under a pound), and have a plastic tube to hold the spoon after you have removed the pin. Then a simple trap door unlatched by servo action would let it drop. A swarm of these would be devastating, and they’d be cheap enough to have a swarm. But I went down to the hand grenade store, and they were fresh out. Of course a terrorist group might be able to find some, or pipe bombs with ignition mechanisms similar to grenades’ could be made.

But discussion of using consumer-type drones as weapons is straying a bit from the OP’s question of why ‘drones’ are suddenly so popular. :wink:

All valid, but my favourite counterpoint to the “they can weaponize those things!” is that to date we haven’t seen any instances of remote controlled cars or boats used for that purpose, and they’ve been around for a long time already.

This is a good point. I always wondered why “VBIED” designers in Iraq, etc didn’t try to make them at least partially remote controlled. For example, the vehicle could be driven to within a few hundred meters of the target by a human driver. That driver would get out and close the door. There would be a basic servo setup attached to the gas peddle/brake/steering wheel, like mythbusters sets up all the time.

Someone else in a following car would pick up the driver and they would drive off. From that following car, there would be a control console with a radio link, and they would then wait in ambush for the convoy being attacked or send it in to the guardpost

You would think that not having to expend a life - which has a nonzero cost even for a guerilla army, the guerillas have to pay the family of the person who killed themselves - would be numerically cheaper than the cost of some made in China servos and circuit boards. Even the labor required to assemble each setup - you could train the people who would be exploded into gore otherwise to do the labor of building and installing the remote control apparatus.

The one major flaw I see with this is that it’s pretty easy to make wide spectrum RF signal jammers. American drones have onboard computer systems that give them partial autonomy, directional antenna that point skyward at satellites, sophisticated digital methods to communicate even when there is jamming, and so on. It would be difficult to make a reliable radio to drive a remote controlled vehicle - and give a clear video signal back - that the American forces would not have been able to trivially counter.

Still, I’ve always assumed that the suicide bombing was always meant to be a suicide attack just for the purpose of someone dying for Allah or whatever. This has always bothered me - why don’t the bombers carry their bombs using a mechanism to detach the vest they are wearing, or have them in briefcases, and at least try to get away. Even if they failed most of the time, making most missions a suicide mission, I feel like making the attempt to escape the blast seems like something any reasonable human being would do.

Any reasonable human being raised in your/my culture, yes. Other cultures, not so much.
There are cultures which put the value of the society above the individual. There are also cultures which place the value of the individual’s contribution to the culture above the value of the individual him/herself.

Those will tend to consider dying in the fight against society’s existential enemies to be the highest, best, noblest thing one can do. Dying some other way just isn’t as good.

The real problem with calling these folks “suicide attackers” is the pile of cultural baggage the word “suicide” drags in for our audience. Which in turn makes it difficult for folks on our side to understand how to disrupt or defeat the recruitment and attack process.