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The military drone bonanza

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.