Just How Powerful Is The Reaper Drone?

A data narrative visualizes how weaponized drones operate, from the Predator to the bigger, faster Reaper.

By 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 30,000 drones, both for commercial and U.S. military interests, will occupy American skies. Despite their impending ubiquity, many people still don’t know much about these aircraft.


In an effort to inform the public about the darker side of drones, New York-based writer Zoe Mendelson collaborated with designers Michael Yap and Zack Davenport of Made By Friends to make a data visualization narrative that lays out everything you may not have wanted to know about drones, and then some.

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“Initially, we wanted to make a neutral project, presenting the pros and cons of drones, but the more we learned through research, the more that changed,” Michael Yap of Made by Friends tells Co.Design. Over the course of six months, the team went through thousands of FAA documents to figure out who had which drones where and what they did with them.

Many drones are being used for wholesome purposes, like delivering packages and creating artsy films. But the team wanted to construct a narrative that focused on the technology’s disturbing aspects.

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The fastest, most sophisticated military drone made yet is the Reaper, which the U.S. Air Force has unofficially deemed a “hunter-killer,” meaning it’s designed to seek and strike targets by shooting Hellfire missiles. As John Sifton wrote in the Nation, Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics, is “a moniker implying that the United States was fate itself, cutting down enemies who were destined to die.” With a maximum speed of 300 MPH, a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet, and capabilities for both remote-controlled and autonomous flight, the Reaper is bigger and faster than General Atomics’ previous Predator (the first drone aircraft deployed by the CIA and Air Force after 2001).

For over a decade, drones have served as the CIA’s weapon of choice in the War on Terror. Though the Obama administration refers to drone strikes as “surgical” and having “laser-like focus,” the reality is less precise, as Made by Friends visualizes: the Reaper, the most precise drone to date, has 100-pound Hellfire missiles, which obliterate anything and anyone within a 60-foot radius of an intended target. If a Hellfire Missile were dropped on Boston’s Fenway Park it could take out most of the baseball diamond.

Click the slide show above for illustrations and information about various types of drones currently in use, or go here for the full data visualization narrative.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.