Drones are used for all manner of things, from commercially-available amateur models to high-tech intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance drones with missile firing capabilities. Over the last two decades, drone technology has been adopted by the world’s militaries and private enterprise, offering new opportunities including transport, logistics and commercial endeavours. When it comes to the biggest flying drone and the world’s largest quadcopter, the contenders are staggering feats of science and engineering.
The first pilotless vehicles were developed almost simultaneously at the very end of World War I. Britain’s Aerial Target and the USA’s Kettering Bug showed promise but were never used operationally.
The term ‘drone’ started to be used in the mid-1930s, thanks to De Havilland’s DH82 Queen B, which was in essence a radio-controlled plane used for target practice, rather than the kind of drone we know today. Their military use remained limited until the 1960s, when reconnaissance drones were used in the Vietnam War. They were deployed as decoys, missile launchers and for dropping propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines. Since then, drone technology has become ever more sophisticated.
Understandably, the world’s militaries tend to keep their technology a closely-guarded secret, so there’s no definitive largest drone list. Therefore, this is the countdown to the biggest drone in the world for which information is readily available.
The Largest Drones in the World
Today’s biggest drones are largely those built for military or surveillance purposes and are increasingly used in active operations. These technically complex machines can weigh up to several tons. Here’s a run-down of the world’s largest drones.
Length: 6.5 metres | Wingspan: 12 metres | Maximum speed: 220 km/h
Built by private Turkish defence company Baykar, the TB2 is an unmanned combat aerial vehicle which can be flown by remote control or by autonomous operation. The medium-altitude, long-endurance vehicle isn’t the world’s biggest drone, but it is close. It’s operated by a crew of three from a ground control station, has a service ceiling of 7,600 metres and a range of up to 4,000 kilometres.
Length: 11 metres | Wingspan: 20.1 metres | Maximum speed: 482 km/h
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is the world’s first hunter-killer drone designed and built specifically for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. It may not be the largest drone ever built but it is one of the most lethal.
According to the US Air Force, it’s designed to ‘execute time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision and destroy or disable those targets.’ The $56.5 million drone has a 15,240 metre service ceiling and can carry four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs and multiple AIM-9X Block 2 missiles.
RQ-4 Global Hawk
Length: 14.5 metres | Wingspan: 39.9 metres | Maximum speed: 629 km/h
The RQ-4 is a high-altitude surveillance drone primarily tasked with intelligence gathering to support American forces in global military operations. It was designed and built by aerospace company Northrop Grumman and made its maiden flight in February 1998. It is the largest drone in the US arsenal.
It can monitor as much as 100,000 square kilometres a day and is flown by a crew of three – a Launch & Recovery Element pilot, a Mission Control Element pilot and a Sensor Operator. It has a service ceiling of 18,000 metres and a range of 23,000 kilometres.
Length: 24.3 metres | Wingspan: 18.2 metres | Maximum take-off weight: 25 tonnes
The Ravn X Autonomous Launch Vehicle, built by Alabama-based space logistics company Aevum, is the world’s biggest drone and believed to be the largest drone ever built.
It looks more like a futuristic fighter plane than the biggest flying drone in the world, and has been designed to launch satellites into space. Once it reaches its intended altitude and location, it drops a rocket that propels small satellites – up to around 100 kg – into low-earth orbit. The company claims the Ravn X can complete one mission every three hours.
It takes-off like a manned plane and after each completed mission, it lands and parks itself in a hangar.
An Evolving Technology
So these are the world’s biggest drones. The technology is relatively new but they have quickly become a vital part of the civilian and military world.
As well as their obvious military uses, drones help to fight fires, locate missing people on land and at sea, monitor crop health and plan irrigation systems. They’re a front-line partner in disaster management and subsequent search and rescue operations.
Drones are also being developed by leading technology and logistics companies, meaning we can get moving more quickly and get our goods faster and more efficiently.
The World's Largest Quadcopter
Put simply, a quadcopter is a four-motor, four-rotor aircraft, which is more agile, more stable and capable of undergoing more stresses than its two-rotor counterparts.
Quadcopters grew in popularity after World War II, although many of the projects intended for commercial use were terminated during or soon after the testing phases. These included the Convertawings Model A Quadrotor – the first four-rotor machine that successfully demonstrated forward flight – which was intended as a precursor to civil and military helicopters.
One of the first examples of a quadcopter drone was the Crop Sprayer made by British aircraft company Gloster. It didn’t go into production but the design paved the way for future quadcopter projects.
The world’s largest quadcopter was the Curtiss-Wright VZ-7, a VTOL – vertical take-off and landing – aircraft built in the late 1950s, which was designed to be a ‘flying jeep.’
It was 5.1 metres long, 4.9 metres wide and had a gross weight of 953 kg. The four rotors were powered by a Turbomeca Artouste IIB turboshaft engine, giving the vehicle a maximum speed of 51 km/h.
The VZ-7 performed well during the testing phase but didn’t meet the US Army’s stringent standards for flight and was retired in 1960. Two were built and one is currently part of the United States Army Aviation Museum in Fort Rucker, Alabama.