It may wield the world's most powerful military machine, but the United States does not like to lose its soldiers. It's not good for public relations. The emotions stirred by combat fatalities underpin the US armed forces' loyalty to the pilotless flying drone, known in military parlance as a UAV - unmanned aerial vehicle. Drones are ideally suited for dull, dirty reconnaissance work. Last month, at least two pinpoint attacks on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area were made by Predator drones - the dominant UAV model, built by defence contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Drones monitor the action on both sides of the border. After Taleban insurgents freed nearly 1,150 inmates from the Sarposa prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan in June, a squadron of UAVs was unleashed. 'A fleet of Predator drones criss-crossed the skies some 35,000 feet above Afghanistan's second city, flying throughout the night and long into the next morning, as rag-tag columns of men made good their escape,' British newspaper The Independent reported. Predator drones designated 'RQ' are unarmed and assigned for reconnaissance. Those labeled 'MQ' are multirole drones - in other words, armed aircraft. General Atomics has developed the MQ-9 Reaper (pictured), the successor to the Predator series. The MQ-9 is the first purpose-designed hunter-killer UAV, designed for long-range, high-altitude surveillance missions. It flies higher and faster, and carries 15 times more ordinance. The Reaper was intended for the US Air Force, Nasa, the US Navy and the Department of Homeland Security. Britain has bought two and Italy, Germany and Australia have expressed an interest. Its arsenal can include GPS-guided bombs, Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and Sidewinder missiles for air-to-air self-defence. In August, a Reaper reportedly unleashed a laser-guided missile on a remote-controlled car-bomb in southeast Iraq. It may have been the first time on record one unmanned combat vehicle wiped out another. It is good to know there are also benign applications for drones in development. Money is currently pouring into 'robo-plane' research. Regis Vincent, programme manager of the Artificial Intelligence Centre at US-based SRI International, predicts the market for such vehicles will expand. 'As the market grows, we will see a transition from mostly military reconnaissance use to more civilian applications,' he says. He sees an application for 'first responders' in emergencies. Drones have started to be used to survey forest fires and hurricane damage. 'UAVs are uniquely suited to these environments - particularly small-scale models. Additionally, we will see the integration of solar and battery technologies to help UAVs stay aloft longer,' says Vincent. So it appears these drones could become a force for good, whichever side you are on.