January 20, 2012:
UAVs, like manned aircraft, undergo constant upgrades to improve capabilities, reliability or both. Case in point is a fairly simple upgrade to the landing gear of the 4.7 ton (max takeoff weight) MQ-9 Reaper. The change enabled the landing gear to handle 30 percent more weight on landing. This is important because that means a Reaper can come home with more unused fuel, or weapons. This can be critical if a Reaper develops some kind of problem shortly after takeoff. It's sometimes difficult to find a place to quickly dump fuel or weapons so the stricken Reaper can land. That means you risk a landing gear failure and a crash landing (plus a big fire and exploding missiles). The new landing gear not only allows landing a heavier Reaper but allows 12 percent more weight on takeoff. That amounts to about half a ton of additional fuel, weapons, or sensors.
Even smaller UAVs, like the ubiquitous Raven, benefit from constant upgrades. Over the last few years several major improvements have been introduced. One was a "fail safe" mode, where a Raven that lost contact with its operator would immediately head for where it was launched from. After that came a location beacon, so that if one crashed over the hill it could be quickly found. Another improvement was a digital data link, which made it easier to encrypt the video feed, and made it possible to operate 16 Ravens within range of each other, rather than only four. There were also upgrades to the controller, making it more like a video game controller. This made it easier and quicker to train new operators.