How Much Do Military Drones Cost? | A Detailed Look


The use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones, has become a popular tool of war in the United State’s efforts against terrorism. The popularity of camera drones among civilians may lead many enthusiasts to wonder about their military counterparts. 

Military drones can cost as little as $700,000. Larger and more advanced unmanned aerial systems range in price from $1M-$25. While expensive, drones are significantly cheaper to procure than manned aircraft, which average around $70M.

Many of the details about the United States’ use of military drones are, naturally, classified. However, the Freedom of Information Act has allowed access to some knowledge about the costs of procuring and operating military UAS. Read on for more information about drones, their prices, and what kind of career opportunities can be found in drone operation. 

The Basics of Military Drones

UAS drones are used frequently in both overt and covert combat overseas. Drones essentially allow heavily armed systems to be flown remotely. This allows the pilots to wield tremendously destructive power from a safely removed location. 

Drones are also used by the military and intelligence agencies to collect information on enemy movements, scout during firefights, and can be extremely useful in a manhunt. The most common unmanned aerial system used in combat is the MQ-1 Predator, according to Britannica

Military drones are crucial both in supplying aerial support in combat situations and aerial scouting for covert operations. In both uses, unmanned aerial systems were a critical element of the United States counterterrorism strategy, according to the U.S. Air Force

Are Drones Cheaper Than Manned Aircraft?

Drones are significantly cheaper than manned aircraft. According to data from the Economist, an General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper costs roughly $3M per plane, compared against the nearly $12M a manned aircraft requires in personnel costs. 

While the source admits that the two can’t be perfectly compared, the takeaway is that drones demand roughly 1/4th of the procurement and management cost of manned aircraft.

What Is the Most Expensive Military Drone?

The price of a drone depends on the size, capability, and range of the system. While none of them are cheap, unmanned aerial systems can be procured for a relatively low amount compared to manned aircraft. 

Of those listed by Military Machine, the most expensive military drone is the Northrop Grumann X-47B at roughly $405M per unit. This drone is classified as an unmanned combat aircraft and is roughly the size of a strike fighter. 

Northrop Grumann X-47B– Photo courtesy of Robert Sullivan

The Grumman X-47B is the first drone to have autonomous aerial refueling capabilities, which is a contributing factor to its astronomical procurement price. 

While other unmanned systems may not have the same top-of-the-line tech and capabilities, they range and price from under one million to hundreds of millions.

Here’s a list of the most commonly used drones by militaries and governments and their relative prices:

  • Insitu ScanEagle: Around $800k per unit
  • Chengdu Pterodactyl I: Around $1M
  • Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie: Around $3M per Unit
  • Boeing A160 Hummingbird: Around $6M
  • MQ-8 Fire Scout: Around $15M 
  • Thales Watchkeeper WK450: Around $16M
  • Dassault nEUROn: Around $25M
  • IAI Eitan: Around $35M
  • MQ-9 Reaper: Around $32M
  • EADS Talarion: Around $80M 
  • Turkish Aerospace Anka: Around $100M
  • Northrop Grumman X-47B: Around $405M

How Much Does a Predator Drone Cost?

According to Military Factory, a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator costs roughly $40M. In spite of the price, the Predator has been a crucial instrument of warfare for the United States’ efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The MQ-1 Predator is manufactured by General Atomics. It was first deployed in 1995, at which time developmental flaws in the drone were ironed out, the MQ-1 Predator was utilized for military surveillance, operated by the CIA. 

The Predator requires a control team of 55 members including a pilot and sensor operators. The control team communicates with the aircraft via the Predator Primary Satellite Link.

The Predator is capable of landing and taking off with limited runway space thanks to a triangular retractable landing system. 

What Is the Cost of a Reaper Drone?

The United States Air Force employs a Reaper Drone for high-profile targets. This unmanned aircraft has the capability of flying for over 24 hours, providing highly detailed views from over 10,000 feet away, and is equipped with missiles and lasers.

A Reaper Drone costs around $32 million, according to Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation. It is not a vital piece of military equipment, making the price considerably steep—and the price continues to rise with each passing year. In 2008, a Reaper Drone cost only $14 million.

The reason the Reaper Drone price continues to rise dramatically is due to technological advancements. As performance increases, the prices continue to go up—and it’s expected that this will remain the normal trend.

What Is the Cheapest Military Drone?

Gremlins X-61A

Gremlins are small UAs and cost around $700,000 or less. These are one of the least expensive military drones and DARPA is developing hundreds of them. Gremlins are designed to fly into highly regulated areas prior to the arrival of manned aircraft.

These drones are cheaper to operate than other larger, more equipped drones. They do not come equipped with lasers or missiles, but are useful in gathering intelligence ahead of manned planes.

How Much Does It Cost To Maintain a Drone?

According to a PDF from the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone, the United States spent over $9 billion in 2019 on the procurement of drones, as well as research, development, testing, and evaluation.

While there’s limited data available about precisely how much is spent on military drone maintenance, this graph sourced from the National Center for Biotechnology Information displays the relative rate of failure for five different kinds of aerial assault systems. 

The relative failure rate of each type of drone determines its maintenance cycle. The more frequently a drone enters a soft failure period, the more specialized labor hours will be required for the drone’s long-term operation. 

Although drones are by definition unmanned, there are a lot of people required for it to run a successful mission. Logistically speaking, the cost of maintaining a drone must be taken into account along with the procurement price.

How Much Does a Military Drone Cost per Hour?

Global Hawk, which is one of the larger armed systems according to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, can cost as much as $15k per hour. The amount of money required per hour to operate a UAS varies based on the type of drone. 

The complexity of the drone dictates the size of the crew required to operate it effectively, along with the amount of equipment necessary at the base. However, replacing human pilots with armed drones is not decided purely on budgetary reasons, according to The Economist

Do Military Drones Have Guns?

Most Unmanned Aerial Systems fire missiles rather than guns. According to the BBC, however, the Tikad drone is capable of carrying an automatic machine gun and firing grenades midair. Weapons are discharged via a controller.

The purpose of a gun-carrying drone would appear to be the reduction of military casualties and required troops. Critics warn, however, that these small arms drones increase the risk of killing innocent civilians. Tikad drones are available on the civilian market, however, the prices were not disclosed.  

ThrowFlame, which manufactures unmanned civilian aerial systems, was investigated by the FAA after a video released on the internet showed one of the drones operating a firearm. According to Extreme Tech, the FAA issued a warning, but did not see fit to hand out fines. 

How Much Does a Drone Strike Cost?

For the United States military, a drone strike costs up to $15,000 per hour. This price factors in the type of drone used in the strike, equipment used, and the missiles dropped. As an example, the Predator Drone costs around $12 million. Each missile fired from the Predator costs an additional $70,000 or more.

Needless to say, drone strikes can exceed billions of dollars, depending on the number and type of missiles fired.

Can You Make a Living as a Drone Pilot?

Predator-Drone-and-Pilot

Drones are an increasingly popular tool, both in the civilian sector and the military effort. As new technology continues to present higher grade drones at more affordable prices, many amateur enthusiasts have found a way to monetize their pastimes. 

As more industries incorporate drones into their land scouting, surveillance, and visual arts, the variety of professions available to skilled drone pilots. Outside of military service, drones are used both in the commercial industry and even in some civil service. 

As a civilian drone pilot, there are a number of ways to earn a living. Freelance gig work is becoming more common, especially as members of Generation Z are beginning to graduate college and enter the workforce. Working as a freelance drone photographer can bring in $500-600 per week.

How Much Do Military Drone Pilots Make?

Military drone pilots make an average salary of $57,000 per year, but pay may exceed $61,000. Compare this to military pilots that fly manned aircraft—their salaries range from $82,000 to over $100,000, with a $95,000 average.

The salary depends on where in the country a pilot works, their experience level, and what type of drones and equipment they’re working with.

Are Drone Pilots in Demand?

Drone pilots are very much in demand, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. There are roughly 100,000 jobs projected to be created in the drone pilot industry by 2025. Military service also offers a variety of career paths, including search and rescue operations as well as combat situations. 

Is There a Future for Drone Pilots?

As the United States military continues to be sent around the world on humanitarian deployment, there is always a need for skilled drone pilots and operators. Outside of a military technician career, however, there are a number of civilian career paths budding as drones become more incorporated into the tools of industry.

Governmental oversight of military and civilian drone use is relatively limited. While the misperception is that drone-heavy warfare may be a safer alternative to traditional combat, the facts are more complicated.

With President Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the subject of unmanned aerial may fall under harsh scrutiny, which may affect the facilities in which drone pilots may be employed. 

There is a future for drone pilots. The need for drone pilots, operators, and cinematographers in the civilian sector continues to flourish. New job opportunities and alternative working lifestyles are budding up as the economy adapts to a new generation of workers. 

Here is a list of career options for drone pilots, sourced from Commercial UAV News:

  • Mapping: UAV pilots use the systems to capture high resolution images of a landscape to create an accurate map of the area including topography and structures in real time. 
  • Modeling: Similar to mapping, modeling uses the system’s camera to create an accurate representation of the surroundings. The difference is that modeling captures a three dimensional model, which can then be used from immersive walk-through simulations. 
  • Thermal Imaging: There are a wide variety of practical uses for thermal imaging. Police, fire and rescue all utilize thermal imaging drones on a relatively regular basis. 
  • Real Estate Photography: Aerial photography, though slightly less tactical, is a benefit to real estate advertisers. A skilled drone photographer can capture the layout of a property from the perfect aerial angle. 
  • Inspections: Drones can be used to inspect hazardous or difficult to access areas. A skilled operator is required to navigate the aerial imaging system. 
  • Cinematography: The use of drones is increasingly popular in the film industry. The advanced gyroscopic technology, combined with the high capacity to recognize and track faces and body movements make them ideal for smooth filming. 
  • Event Photography: Drones are also becoming increasingly popular in sports coverage, large group photographs, and more!  

Military Drones in Civil Service and Industry

Many veterans transitioning into civilian employment may seek out jobs in their specialty field. Military drone operators are highly valued in the civil sector for their precise training and discipline. 

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the legality of is dependent on the local legislation and whether the drone is equipped with weapons. Under international law, armed drones are not explicitly prohibited. Their use, as opposed to their existence, is subject to international law just as any weapons system and the government that wields them are. 

The most common overlap between drones used for the military effort and those used in the private sector is surveillance UAVs. Military specialists may also find employment training others to operate drones, as well as training or leading a team in drone maintenance.

Weaponized Drones Are Illegal to Civilians

Not all the drones used by the military are weaponized and so can overlap with civil use. Weaponized aerial combat systems, however, are illegal for civilian use. As drone prices become more affordable to the general population, regulation of civilian use of weaponized aerial systems is likely to increase. 

Some companies however use technical loopholes to increase the firepower of civilian drones. ThrowFlame, for example, sells a $1,500 attachment which does exactly what the company title insinuates.

ThrowFlame maintains that the attachment does not constitute weaponization, as there are a number of legitimate civil uses for that technology, such as forestry and wildfire prevention. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), however, is authorized to punish civilians who abuse the weaponizable capability of UAS with large fines, according to Extreme Tech. Beyond that, civilians will be held accountable by the criminal justice system for actions or damages caused by a weaponized drone.

Final Thoughts

The UAs used by the military represent some of the most advanced technology, the zenith of human innovation. This complexity allows pilots to observe, analyze, target and smite from above, reducing the number of troops required on the ground. Drones played an essential role in the US military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As drones become more popular in the private sector, new jobs and civilian jobs continue to flourish. Military drones are expensive, both to procure and maintain, but with the proper resources, drones offer the opportunity to expand the horizons of human innovation, both in surveillance and firepower.

I hope this article has been informative. Thanks for reading!

For more, check out How Much Does a Monster Truck Cost | Buying vs. Building.

Jim James

Hey, I'm Jim and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!

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