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Expand chart
Data: The Drone Databook; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

About half of the world's militaries are now flying drones, according to a sweeping new study published this week that revealed the swift spread of a critical technology that until recently was too expensive or sophisticated for most countries.

Why it matters: The increasingly robot-crowded skies mean that clashes involving drones — like the recent attack on a Saudi oil facility that the U.S. has blamed on Iran — are likely to become commonplace.

The takeaways: From cheap, off-the-shelf quadcopters to enormous, missile-toting aircraft, flying drones are not only proliferating widely, but they're becoming integrated increasingly deeply into militaries, according to the new report from Dan Gettinger, co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

  • They are already changing the way countries project power over adversaries. Chinese drones are flying over the South and East China seas, Russian drones are over Ukraine, and Iranian drones allegedly operate in Yemen and Syria.
  • Despite the explosion of new players, the U.S., China and Israel still have the most sophisticated drone operations, Gettinger tells Axios. But new leaders, like Turkey and Russia, are emerging.
  • China has fewer experiences operating drones than its peers — but, as one of the largest suppliers of drones to other countries, it's likely learning vicariously, Gettinger says.

Between the lines: The study's focus on training and R&D programs in addition to drone arsenals reveals some militaries' deeper preparations for drone warfare.

  • South Korea, for example, has about as many drones as you'd expect for a country its size, according to the report. But a look at its training programs shows something different: Its military intends to train thousands of small-drone operators.
  • "South Korea recognizes that small drones are going to become ubiquitous on the battlefield of the future," Gettinger says.

What's next: Big R&D efforts are underway in several countries to develop drone swarms — groupings of drones that can be flown by one remote operator, or even autonomously.

Go deeper

In photos: D.C. and U.S. states on alert for pre-inauguration violence

National Guard troops stand behind security fencing with the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building behind them, on Jan. 16. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Security has been stepped up in Washington, D.C., and state capitols across the U.S. as authorities brace for potential violence this weekend.

Driving the news: Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by some supporters of President Trump, the FBI has said there could be armed protests in D.C. and in all 50 state capitols in the run-up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

15 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Axios subject-matter experts brief you on the incoming administration's plans and team.

Rep. Lou Correa tests positive for COVID-19

Lou Correa. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) announced on Saturday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Correa is the latest Democratic lawmaker to share his positive test results after last week's deadly Capitol riot. Correa did not shelter in the designated safe zone with his congressional colleagues during the siege, per a spokesperson, instead staying outside to help Capitol Police.