Lift Off: Drone Usage In Latin America Takes Flight

By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

2014 could be remembered as the year when drone usage, both for military and civilian purposes, decisively took off throughout Latin America. The cherry on top of the proverbial cake was the recent decision by the South American Nations Union (UNASUR) to create a regionally-built drone. While this initiative may need a few years to materialize, it is nonetheless important as it stresses how increasingly widespread drone usage will become throughout the region in the near future.

South America Coming Together

Defense Ministry representatives from the twelve UNASUR members (all South American states) met in mid-December 2014 in Salvador, Brazil to discuss the manufacturing of an UNASUR drone. The gathering decided to support the regional construction of a drone, which should help internal security operations carried out by member states and will also serve as a confidence-building mechanism. Since a complete design concept has not been signed off yet, as the UNASUR drone is barely at the “discussion” phase, there are no specific details available. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that during the meeting in Brazil, South American officials decided that the drone must have sensors and electronic components that adapt to quick climate changes, it must be able to operate at long ranges, and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) must have the ability to smoothly transfer guide controls from one installation to another.[i]

While UNASUR coordination is important, we should not assume that the design phase, much less the manufacturing, will begin anytime soon. History proves that although Latin American governments come together for ambitious initiatives, they tend to occur at a snail’s pace. The UNASUR drone is not the first time that the regional agency has come together to build an aircraft as a sort of challenge of its military technology capabilities and as a confidence building mechanism. In fact, UNASUR is already building a regional military training aircraft.

UNASUR’s ambitious project to construct an aircraft was originally announced around May 2013, but, according to recent reports, the prototype will only be finished by 2016.[ii] Argentina has taken the lead in this project as the aircraft’s design will follow that of the Argentine military aircraft IA-73, which is being constructed by the country’s Fábrica Argentina de Aviones. All UNASUR members are supposed to be involved in the project, either by helping to construct the aircraft or by serving as observers. Nevertheless, while the region is no stranger to manufacturing military aircrafts (the Tucano, constructed by Brazil’s EMBRAER comes to mind) the prototype of UNASUR-1, as the UNASUR plane will be called, will require at least one more year before it is finished.[iii] While smaller in size than an aircraft, a construction of a drone is much more technologically challenging, especially as domestic drone programs in South America are not as developed as other countries that manufacture these apparatus (i.e. the U.S. or Israel).

Finally, it is worth stating that other regions are similarly coming together to construct drones: seven European nations (France, Germany and Spain among them) have announced their intention to create a consortium to construct a “euro drone” by 2020.[iv] Certainly a number of European industries already manufacture drones, like the Swedish CybAero AB, but the goal is to construct a UAV to promote cooperation and confidence between several states, resulting in a state-of-the-art vehicle that other countries will want to purchase.[v]

As for the UNASUR drone, much needs to be clarified before an accurate timetable can be provided regarding construction schedules. It makes sense that Brazil may take a lead in this endeavor, as it already produces drones, but other countries, including Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, can provide technological expertise due totheir own production and usage of drones.[vi] However, while creating a UNASUR drone generally makes sense, the timetable of the UNASUR-1 plane serves as an example that one should not assume that even the most positive and sound initiatives will become a reality anytime soon.

Domestic Programs Grow

UNASUR’s project aside, Latin American countries continue to be interested in developing their own drones and have significantly expanded these programs in 2014. The most notable success came from Colombia, as the local weapons company, the Corporación Industrial Aeronáutica Colombiana (CINAC) unveiled the Iris, the South American nation’s first home-built drone this past year. The drone can reach a height of eight thousand feet, it can also travel as far as 100 kilometers and it features optic sensors and the Flir HD image system.[vii] For the time being, the Iris will be used by the Colombian armed forces for patrol missions, but the goal seems to be that it eventually will be exported. The Iris was showcased during the recently-ended UNVEX America 2014, a weapons fair that took place in Colombia, as a way for the country to demonstrate its emerging industrial military complex.

Foto: Carlos E. Hernández/INFODEFENSA.COM

Foto: Carlos E. Hernández/INFODEFENSA.COM

Meanwhile, the Peruvian Air Force (FAP) will team up with the South Korean company Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd (KAI) to manufacture a new drone. KAI has sold a number of KT-1P military training aircraft to the FAP, hence there is already a history of joint cooperation between the two entities.[viii] As part of the agreement between KAI and the FAP over the transfer of the KT technology, the Korean company will provide technological expertise for the Peruvian Air Force’s Centro de Desarrollo de Proyectos (CEDEP, Center for Developing Projects) to manufacture a drone that can fly up to 24 hours and take thermal and night-time images. The goal would be to utilize this drone for surveillance operations in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM) where the remnants of the narco-terrorist organization Shining Path operates.[ix] It should be remembered that the Peruvian Air Force already has developed several drone prototypes, but it appears that the UAV constructed in partnership with KAI will be actively used in real operations.[x]

Regarding Venezuela, not much is clear about its current drone program. Reports dating back to 2012 say that Iran and Russia were providing technological expertise so that the South American country can construct its own drones.[xi] The Venezuelan Air Force has at least two drone projects. One of them is Arpía, which is based on the Mohajer 2 drone (produced by Iran), while the other is called Gavilán.[xii] Unfortunately, reliable information about the current operational status of both drones is difficult to come by.

Ultimately, the possibility that Latin American drones will be exported to other countries and be competitive with American, Israeli or European UAVs is actually not a far-fetched scenario. Just this past August, it was reported that Brazil had exported its first drone, a FT-100 Horus, to an undisclosed African nation.[xiii] Israeli or American drones may be more advanced, but developing nations may choose to buy an efficient, but cheaper, “knock off” version, which could give Latin American drone exports an edge in the near future.

Drone Imports Will Continue in 2015

Latin American domestic drone programs may be cementing a position for themselves in the market, but they will take a couple of more years before they can be mass manufactured. Hence, Latin American nations will continue to import drones for the foreseeable future. Countries like Israel and the U.S. are obviously the major drone exporters to the region, but on occasion there have been disconcerting rumors about drone-deals with some unlikely suppliers.

Case in point, in late 2014 the Mexican media speculated that the Mexican government was planning to purchase drones from Iran.[xiv] The reasoning was that Mexico City wanted to improve ties with Tehran, and also needed more drones to combat drug trafficking. Nevertheless, the Mexican government categorically denied this report. It would have been a bizarre development if Mexico had indeed purchased drones from Iran, a country which has been at odds with the U.S., Mexico’s strategic ally, for decades. For the record Iran does produce drones, and it has helped Venezuela with its own drone program, but it is unlikely that Mexico would jeopardize its close security relations with Washington for a few UAVs.[xv]

As for less-controversial initiatives, the U.S. aerospace company Boeing has declared its intention to increase drone sales to Colombia. The Colombian Air Force is currently the sole operator in the region of Boeing’s Scaneagle and Nighteagle, which are utilized for internal security operations against drug-trafficking and counterinsurgency. Hence, it is logical to assume that the Colombian government would want to continue using drones that its personnel know how to operate. Moreover, this past October, Boeing’s Vice President for the Americas, Roberto Valla, explained that the company aims to sell more drones to the Colombian Navy, while Brazil and Chile, which operate Israeli drones, also seem to be interested in purchasing Boeing’s products.[xvi]

Apart from Boeing, another company aspiring to sell drones to Latin America is Aerovironment, which produces the Raven and Puma, which are already operated by the Colombian armed forces.[xvii] Countries like Chile, Mexico and Peru are apparently interested in purchasing them. Additionally, the Swedish firm Unmanned System Groups (USG), showcased its F-330 drone to the Uruguayan armed forces in late 2014.[xviii] However, a deal between USG and Montevideo has yet to be signed, though this could occur soon as the Uruguayan Army appears to be interested in acquiring them in order to support Uruguayan peacekeepers in Africa.[xix] Additionally, Israeli Aerospace Industries has declared that it may reach a deal in 2015 with the Mexican Air Force.[xx]

In other words, there are several contracts that could be signed within the coming months, which will mean that we will see Latin American militaries utilize an increasing number drones in the near future.

Civilian Drone

Finally, it is important to stress that drones are not only used for military purposes, they can also be used for a multitude of civilian activities. In this case, the usage of drones has become fairly widespread in the region. Case in point, drones have been used for archaeological purposes in the Amazonas region of northern Peru.[xxi] Archaeologists are interested in using drones as they can help create a 3D model of an archaeological dig by providing a “bird’s eye view.”[xxii]

Foto: Wilfredo Sandoval  - El Comercio (Peru)

Foto: Wilfredo Sandoval – El Comercio (Peru)

Latin American journalists are also using drones. For example, in 2013 the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio launched such a device from a rooftop in order to tape a fire in downtown Lima.[xxiii] Because the blaze was between high-rise buildings, it was too dangerous for helicopters to fly close, but a UAV does not have that problem. Likewise, a drone was also used by the Guatemalan newspaper Nuestro Diario to obtain exclusive aerial shots of a deadly fire that hit the Guatemalan market known as La Terminal in March 2014.[xxiv]

On the issue of journalists using drones, there is one case already of these activities that has sparked controversy. In El Salvador, a drone was flown over the wall around a police station to photograph the disgraced former President Francisco Flores, who has been arrested.[xxv] This incident prompted a debate in the Central American nation for the drafting of laws regarding what is permissible when it comes to the usage of drones for civilian purposes. Some countries, like Brazil, have passed legislation about how civilians can utilize drones, and we can expect these legislations to proliferate in the near future, particularly if incidents akin to the one in El Salvador become commonplace.[xxvi]


As 2015 begins, Latin America is on the edge of becoming an even more frequent user of unmanned aerial vehicles. While local drone manufacturing took a great step forward with Colombia’s Iris prototype and UNASUR’s decision to construct a bloc-drone, for the immediate future, drones will continue to be imported. In an analysis about the 2014 UNVEX American weapons fair in Colombia, the renowned Spanish defense news agency explained that regional militaries and police agencies are relying on drones for real-time ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) in order to crack down on sources of insecurity, which in Latin America includes anything from street-level criminals to drug cartels and insurgent movements. Moreover, regional governments and security agencies are keen to utilize drones because they reduce the risk of human losses and logistical costs.  One would expect that losing a drone would also carry less political costs as this less problematic than when a warplane or a helicopter, with people inside, is shot down.[xxvii]

In a November commentary for the International Security Network, drone-expert Ulrike Franke, a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, highlights how some 76 countries are currently known to operate drones. She argues that, “greater transparency also decreases the likelihood of dangerous misunderstandings” and that “some argue that the proliferation of unarmed drones could eventually lead states to pursue armed ones. While there may be some truth to this, it also points to what most would consider the real problem: the international proliferation of armed drones.”[xxviii]

When it comes to Latin America, we are indeed witnessing an expansion of unarmed military drones, as most states from Mexico to Argentina either have UAVs or are considering purchasing them. Then again, we should not assume that we will see swarms of drones flying over Latin America in the near future; the number will probably remain few in comparison to the U.S., and the will UAVs will be focused on internal security operations, particularly to combat drug trafficking and insurgency in isolated areas. Furthermore, the fact that a regional bloc like UNASUR wants to cooperate in constructing a drone can be looked upon as a good example of drone technology being utilized as a confidence-building mechanism.

On the topic of armed drones, as this author has discussed in a 2013 report for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Drones in Latin America,” [PDF available] no Latin American nation currently has armed drones and it is highly unlikely that countries which possess them, like the U.S. and Israel, will want to sell armed drones to Latin America anytime in the near future.[xxix] Latin American countries could certainly attempt to construct armed drones, but given that unarmed drones are still at the prototype/first-generation level, this is unrealistic to occur in the foreseeable future.

Finally, the recent analysis “Do Drones Have A Future” by Paul Scharre, a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) should be acknowledged. The commentary, published on the website War On The Rocks, discusses the future of drone usage by the U.S. military.[xxx] Scharre explains how “the obstacles to getting where each of the [U.S. military] services needs to be go beyond a lack of funding, however. While unmanned aircraft have been embraced for niche roles like reconnaissance, parts of the military resist their incorporation into core mission areas.”[xxxi]When it comes to Latin American security agencies, this researcher has yet to find cases of military officers being against drone usage. If anything, Latin American militaries, like Colombia and Peru, are eager to utilize drones because of the decisive advantage against drug trafficking and criminal entities the technology can provide. If anything, the U.S. military’s reliance on drones in Afghanistan and Iraq has made Latin American security institutions believe that drones can be a game changer when it comes to their own internal security challenges.

Across Latin America, 2014 was truly the year that intensified interest within the region to pursue drone technology for both state security and civilian purposes.


By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Lead Editor: Larry Birns, COHA Director

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured image copyright by: Gunnery Sergeant Shannon Arledge of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing


[i] “Sudamérica define los requisitos de su futura aeronave no tripulada.” December 15, 2014.

[ii] “Unasur tiene casi listo prototipo de avión militar de entrenamiento.” May, 17, 2013.

[iii]“’Unasur 1′, se llamará el avión de entrenamiento de este organismo.” Caracol Radio. August 15, 2014. . W. Alejandro Sanchez. “Embraer: Brazilian Military Giant Becoming a Global Arms Merchant” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Report. September 1, 2009.

[iv] Andrew Rettman. “Seven EU states create military drone ‘club.’” EUObserver. November 20, 2013.

[v] Wolfgang Heller. “Swedish UAV ready for lift-off.” January 10, 2013.

[vi]Angelo Young. “Brazil Exports First Military Drone: Flight Technologies FT-100 Horus Heads To Unnamed African Country.” International Business Times. August 4, 2014.

[vii] “Colombia presenta su primera aeronave ART en UNVEX América 2014.” October 31, 2014.

[viii] “KAI’s two basic trainers delivered to Peru.” Yonhap News Agency. October 22, 2014.

[ix]“ La Fuerza Aérea del Perú desarrollará un UAV de combate.” August 20, 2014.

[x] “Conozca los drones peruanos, aviones no tripulados fabricados en Perú.” July 12, 2014.

[xi] Brian Ellsworth. “Venezuela says building drones with Iran’s help.” Reuters. June 14, 2013.

[xii] “CAVIM avanza en el desarrollo del vehiculo aereo no tripulado Gavilan.” Venezuelan Defensa. July 20, 2013. – Also see “Venezuela inicio la operación de los UAV Arpia.”

[xiii] Angelo Young. “Brazil Exports First Military Drone: Flight Technologies FT-100 Horus Heads To Unnamed African Country.” International Business Times. August 4, 2014.

[xiv] “Niegan en México que el país vaya a comprar drones a Irán.” December 19, 2014.

[xv] “Iran tests suicide drone in military drill.”Al Arabiya News. News. Middle East. The Associated Press. December 27, 2014.

[xvi] Erich Saumeth. “Colombia, único usuario latinoamericano de drones Scaneagle y Nighteagle de Boeing.” October 31, 2014.

[xvii] “Colombia, Perú, México y Chile, entre los países con mayor interés en adquirir UAV Raven y Puma.” October 31, 2014.

[xviii]“El Ejército del Uruguay avanza en el proceso de adquisición de UAV.” October 7, 2014.

[xix] Juan Pablo de Marco. “Los drones comienzan a despegar en Uruguay.” El Pais. December 14, 2013.

[xx] “IAI prepara un gran desembarco en México para el año 2015.” November 3, 2014.

[xxi]W. Alejandro Sanchez. “Peru uses drones for archaeological projects.” Peru This Week. July 21, 2014.

[xxii] W. Alejandro Sanchez. “Peru uses drones for archaeological projects.” Peru This Week. July 21, 2014.

[xxiii] “Incendio en el Cercado de Lima: 25 familias perdieron sus casas.” El Comercio. Lima. December 5, 2013.

[xxiv]“Imágenes aéreas – incendio en Mercado La Terminal.” Nuestro Diario. YouTube. Uploaded March 25, 2014.

[xxv] A. Lopez. “El Salvador adelanta la regulación de los vuelos de UAV.” November 9, 2014.

[xxvi] John Otis. “Brazil lead way on global commercial drone boom.”Global Post. January 6, 2013.,1

[xxvii] Eric Saumeth Cadavid. “UNVEX América 2014: drones como actores de cambio en América Latina.” Perspectivas. November 11, 2014.

[xxviii] Ulrike Franke. “Drone Proliferation: A Cause for Concern?” International Security Network. November 13, 2014.

[xxix] W. Alejandro Sanchez. “Drones In Latin America.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Report. January 12, 2014.

[xxx] Paul Scharre. “Do Drones Have a Future”? War On The Rocks. October 7, 2014.

[xxxi] Paul Scharre. “Do Drones Have a Future”? War On The Rocks. October 7, 2014.

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