A drone, in technological terms, is an aircraft minus a human pilot.
Basically, a drone is a computerized flying robot that can be controlled remotely or fly autonomously through software-controlled systems that utilize uploaded flight plans (or pre-configured circuitry), working in conjunction with onboard sensors and global positioning satellites/systems (GPS).
1900s · 1915 · 1930/40s · 1991 · 1996 · 2006 · 2010 · 2013 · 2014 · 2015 · 2022
As we will see clearly, these machines can do much, much more than merely get airborne and perform stable flight.
After centuries of intrigue, wonder, and dreaming, the late 19th century finally has people beginning to understand what it would take, in a simple fashion, to become airborne in an attempt to mimic all the many creatures that fly and achieve the fantasy of flight.
Who could possibly foresee the inevitable impacts this advancement would have on us all as we began to master and understand how to leave the surface of the earth (for short periods to begin with) to finally move through the spaces just above the earth.
- UAV = Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
- UAS = Unmanned Aerial Systems
- Drone = (informal) Either of the above or; or monotonous mono-tonal audio vibration usually fixed in pitch; or male honeybee hive member needed for mating with a hive Queen.
UAVs, Drones, UASs: A History
Once science, art, and mathematics aligned to identify and provide solutions to human flight, the development and evolution of airborne technologies raced forward at mind-boggling speed, to say the least.
The history of unmanned flight is and has always been connected and dependent on that of manned flight in one way or another.
Over 420 years before the first helicopter was built, Leonardo Da Vinci sketched out what he called the Aerial Screw. This aerial screw was a human-powered helicopter that required four men to spin cranks fast enough to generate enough lift to get off the ground.
The invention did not, however, realize its goal of flying as the passengers and the main structure of the device were far too heavy to be lifted in the air as designed.
The very first (reasonably successful) “aeroplanes” or airplanes had wing shapes (foils) very much like those of some common birds. In the early 1900s, both the French inventor (Blériot) and the American team of the Wright Brothers were about to succeed at getting a man in the air with the help of a machine.
Fortunately, at the very same time, developments in small and reasonably efficient combustion engines were taking shape and became yet another important component of man’s ability to realize reasonably sustained human flight.
These developments were instrumental in achieving unmanned flying, using the discoveries and advancements in the world of machines and technology.
On the tails of the Wright brothers’ famous 1909 success (the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), the “airplane” had moved from the drawing table to the air in seemingly no time at all.
It continued to be refined, improved upon, and optimized at breakneck speeds – speeds of advancement difficult to actually comprehend. In less than 50 years, man could now fly completely around the world.
Soon thereafter, with the invention of turbo fans and jet engine technologies, we found ourselves flying at speeds greater than the speed of sound (a tad less than 750 mph).
Along the way, we learned fundamental principles of aerodynamic physics that would also show us how to design, implement and fly airplanes that had no motors.
Even da Vinci’s idea of a helicopter was conquered in the 1930s with just a few completely different concepts and characteristics of flight.
Ten more years and we found ourselves launched free of the earthly tethers of gravity and entered into the unknowable vastness of the universe using vehicles we designed, engineered, and commandeered from both the aircraft OR remotely from the ground.
It is more than reasonable to assume that with these successes, the idea(s) of unmanned flying machines was already ruminating in the minds of folks who think these kinds of things up!
Un-manned flight would become key to providing solutions to numerous other problems along the way (e.g., satellites of many missions, risk mitigation of valuable exploration, etc.).
Military drones appeared in the mid-1850s actually.
Looking back to 1849, Austria attacked neighboring Venice using pilotless balloons stuffed with explosives. Austrian forces, during a siege of Venice, launched around 200 of these bomb-laden balloons over the city.
Each balloon carried somewhere in the neighborhood of about 25 pounds of bombs. Once over a target, these bombs were dropped from their carrier balloons (I’m not sure of the actual release mechanism), hopefully exploding on the city below.
Luckily for the Venetians, a sole bomb found its mark – and changing winds had something to say about the rest of the debacle!
As novel and perhaps terrifying as this event was in the field of military technology, the use of balloons does not really meet the current definition of drones, especially military drones, as defined above.
That being said, it is very interesting to see the basic concept of drones was being considered by military technologists more than 170 years ago.
It is this kind of deep thinking that would drive drone technological development over the coming centuries and decades.
Moving forward a little bit in time, the first pilotless aircraft was developed in 1916, after the outbreak of World War I.
Called the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target, these pilotless military drones used a radio guidance system developed by British engineer Archibald Low.
With a hand-picked team of around 30 men, Low quickly fashioned a pilotless plane which was launched from the back of a moving vehicle using compressed air (another first).
In 1917, Low and his team also invented the first wireless rocket. The technology for this would later be adapted by the Germans for their V1 & V2 rocket program in WWII.
Although Low’s projects had some success, and Low was nicknamed “the father of radio guidance systems,” strangely, his work was not followed up by the British military after the war.
The cutting-edge nature of Low’s work was not appreciated by the British government, although the Germans certainly understood its importance – they made two attempts to assassinate Low!
Fast forward just 60 years or so, and the first pilotless vehicles earmarked as aerial weapons were developed in Britain and the USA during the First World War.
Britain’s Aerial Target, a small radio-controlled aircraft, was first tested in March 1917, while the American aerial torpedo known as the Kettering Bug first flew in October 1918.
The Aerial Target was a radio-controlled full-size aircraft design (of the period, I might add) that was merely packed with explosives and guided to a target via radiographic control systems attempting traditional manipulation (by radio of course) of the plane’s flight controls.
Of note, if the engine of this bird was not running or became disabled, so too was the radio guidance system. What goes up must come down … somewhere.
The Kettering Bug was both unmanned and experimental. Think of an aerial torpedo (a forerunner to modern-day cruise missiles). It was capable of striking ground targets up to 121 kilometers (75 mi) from its launch point while traveling at speeds of 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph).
The Bug’s costly design and operation inspired Dr. Henry W. Walden to create a rocket that would allow a pilot to control the rocket after launch with the use of radio waves.
The English kept all aspects of these aircraft a secret at the time. These designs obviously became the forerunners of modern-day missiles.
After a certain calculated length of time, a device shorted an electrical circuit, which caused the engine to sputter and the wings to separate from the rest of the craft.
This then caused the Bug to spiral downward to the earth, where its 180-pound (82 kg) bomb detonated upon impact.
Around 50 of the “Bugs” were built by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Co., but they arrived too late to actually see any combat during the first world war (WWI).
As mentioned above in the developments of 1917 (Low), I will include in the discussion the tremendous advancements the German scientists and engineers made starting in the early 1930s.
Nazis began implementation of a device referred to as the “Buzz Bomb,” or the V1(or V2) Rocket, which were, in fact, unmanned, primitively guided missiles launched from sites in France and Germany and destined for the urban strongholds of England.
These were manufactured (at Peenemunde, Germany) and ultimately used in great numbers during those dark years of 1942-44, mostly with London as the target.
The chief German architect, Dr. Werner Von Braun, through direct orders of U.S. General D. Eisenhower, was pursued trying to escape to southern Germany as Berlin was falling.
Von Braun was captured in the spring of 1945, patriated as a US citizen, and encouraged (permitted?) primarily to continue his rocketry and propulsion design/experiments for use in what would ultimately become NASA rocket programs for space exploration – with great success.
I hesitate, as these ‘flying bombs” did not have much of a guidance system and were not terribly precise as far as targeting went – but an unmanned aerial vehicle nonetheless.
Of note were the new and unique rocketry propulsion systems – no longer using combustion engines or spinning propellers.
At nearly the same time during WWII, the Japanese attempted to transport and then deliver explosives via something akin to weather balloons, fueled to collapse over the western coast of America.
Launched from naval vessels deep in the Pacific Ocean, they soared usually in the prevailing jet stream at high altitudes and were carried aloft headed for the western coastal states. These were highly experimental and not used with any great success. Those attempts were scrapped very quickly.
By 1986 – The RQ2 Pioneer Drone was Developed.
The U.S. and Israel combined talents and jointly developed what would become one of the most successful UAV platforms at that time. The system was an upgraded IAI Scout drone and featured significant payload improvements.
This aircraft was also used unilaterally by the USAF, the Navy, and the Marines. Later in the RQ2’s shelf life, it would serve as the foundation for the newly designed AAI-RQ-7 Shadow.
During the Gulf War, some Iraqi forces even surrendered to a Pioneer UAV!
In 1991, UAVs are flying round the clock. During the Gulf War, for the first time in a major conflict, at least one drone was airborne from the conflict’s start until its conclusion.
The MQ1 – Predator Drone is developed by the General Atomics Corporation.
Aided by UAV giants like Abraham Karem, the Predator drone platform brought weaponized drones to the battlefield with heretofore unheard-of accuracy, stealth, and lethality.
More than any other UAV, the Predator created the public image of drones striking targets around the world with speed, stealth, and effectiveness never before imagined.
The harbinger of unconventional aerial warfare would change forever with the realization of the Predator family of UASs.
The Federal Aviation Authority begins the long journey of providing UAVs with permission to fly in US Civilian Airspace for the first time.
With further advances in technology, it becomes clear that in the right hands, UAV utility and usefulness have become impossible to deny, and the frameworks for including them in mainstream airspace begin to take shape.
Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina (2005), the FAA allowed UAVs to fly in civilian airspace for search & rescue and disaster relief operations.
Predator drones with thermal cameras were able to detect the heat signatures of humans from up to 10,000 feet away.
Around this time, the consumer drone industry began to really take shape. While DJI had yet to become the marketplace giant it is today, companies like Parrot, DJI, 3DR, and many others were looking to take military UAV technology and repurpose it for use in a variety of different civilian sectors.
The potential for industrial and consumer UAV markets was more than enough for many businesses to invest in the technology.
At the Paris SmartphoneAt CES, drone manufacturer Parrot unveils the AR Drone that will fly controlled by a smartphone.
The AR Drone was a small quadcopter fit for consumer use. An app on a smartphone (or a tablet like an iPad) was all the pilot needed to operate the drone safely.
We see the BeBop series of Parrot drones quickly released the next year with extended battery life, HR cameras with computerized image stabilization, and programmable interfaces at sub $500 pricing.
What is now the leading producer of consumer and professional (non-military) UAVs, the Chinese giant DJI, founded in 2006, changes the playing field of “pro-sumer” drones with the introduction of the iconic Phantom series released in 2013.
This drone began the modern camera-equipped drone craze. Within just a few years, DJI would hold a commanding position in the consumer drone market, with almost 80% of consumer drones in operation manufactured by DJI or one of its subsidiaries.
At this time, major companies are looking to develop and invest in drone delivery services: FedEx, UPS, Amazon, Google, Uber, and countless other delivery companies recognize drone benefits as potential cost reduction platforms as a delivery model.
Testing of various UAV concepts and work with regulatory agencies around the world begins.
The use of drones quickly continues to see rapid expansion in technology advancements, user adoption, affordability, and availability displaying growth in industrial and consumer sectors simultaneously.
By 2030, the entire UAV market is on track to have a net worth of over $90 billion USD.
In 2015 drones went mainstream to the recreational and professional public. Over a million small drones (usually quadcopters of various smaller sizes) were sold that year, with the numbers climbing right alongside the designs, models, and capabilities of these machines.
Most countries, provinces, or states found themselves struggling to keep up with the complications required to regulate these machines.
The laws, regulations, legal definitions, educational centers, terminologies, and enforcement agencies have been scrambling ever since in an attempt to keep pace with the rapid development and growth of this emerging and very disruptive market.
Many commercial companies in the world today are looking at ways to deliver, market, and profit from putting their payloads, goods, and products directly into the hands of huge mobile workforces (the new consumers).
Today’s “drones” have found an enormous range of applications for civilian use, especially in the form of small quadcopters and octocopters.
» MORE: Different Types of Drones and Their Uses
We also see them center stage touting more applications and uses, including monitoring climate change, delivering goods, aiding in search and rescue operations, and in filming, photography, and the entertainment industries.
One company is testing the idea of Mobile Drone Stations placed strategically when and where needed most or are best located for revenue generation by service-based drones.
These are mobile/moveable structures that will support drones that can deliver, charge their batteries, conduct their mission autonomously by delivering the payload to another localized Drone Station, return for more deliverables, and further renewal of energy (battery stores) as needed.
Repeatable and reusable is the mantra of the day! Conceptually, it is very feasible, though somewhat ambitious, to continue developing these types of ideas. It’s too late to un-imagine this scenario as it becomes quite real.
Aside from using UAVs as military weapons delivery systems (bombs and missiles), from the very beginning, the attraction of attaching cameras to drones was a strong one (a direct offshoot from our military satellite capabilities used during the cold war period here in the USA).
In fact, a military surveillance satellite or commercial media satellite is a very expensive flying camera (drones), is it not?
Today, just to train and educate an Air Force cadet to fly an F35 fighter aircraft costs in the neighborhood of USD 10 million (the F35 itself comes in at over USD 100 million per copy – without armaments). Just one pilot!
It is considerably less money to train a USAF drone pilot on the RQ series of drones, but the actual cost may vary widely as many fighter pilots have been opting to fly drones instead of manning an actual airplane, perhaps to elongate their service careers.
America’s military branches alone have deployed fleets of tens of thousands of drones as this is written, compared to just a very few years ago.
These numbers are puny, however, taking into account the number of drones in private hands both commercially and recreationally. According to the FAA, there were 1.1 million drones registered in the U.S. in 2019, and the number will grow considerably in 2022.
It seems somewhat ironic that though our conquest of manned flight was so rapid, we cannot help but marvel that we immediately surged forward to design and implement flying with the human element removed from the machine! DRONES!
The armed forces of the United States have spent untold billions on developing unmanned flying weapons systems (UASs) to lessen the tactical and human costs of waging electronic air warfare.
Certainly, sparing the human role of aero warfare was a viable goal, further reducing the cost of using this type of unmanned weaponry effectively while realizing considerable financial savings for the military-industrial complex.
As the war in Vietnam came to a close, the USAF drastically scaled up its UAS production via new design ideas, expanded mission requirements, and newer, more effective technologies and advancements.
In the civilian world, many modern drones utilize a quadcopter configuration.
The first developments of this idea happened about 1907, when brothers Jacques and Louis Bréguet, with help of French physiologist Professor Charles Richet, developed the first example of the infamous gyroplane – a sort of hybrid helicopter/airplane, which later evolved into the pure helicopter.
For its time, the design of the copter was visionary. Although it achieved the first ascent of a vertical-flight aircraft with a pilot, it only reached a height of 0.6 meters. It was also not a free flight, as four men were needed to steady the structure. So much for unmanned flight!
That being said, it did demonstrate that the concept of a quadcopter would work for flight. It would take more technological development to make it viable but not necessarily unmanned either.
I can’t help but chuckle to see the entire UAV concept return full circle back to the idea of “manned” drones. The many strides made by designers of quadcopter UAVs have reformed them back up in size and scale merely to install human pilots in them!
The mission seems to have changed here yet again – this time as human transports or sport/leisure/pleasure crafts. For those who have always had a penchant for looking up to the sky, this, too, sure looks like a lot of fun!
For us folks over 50, we’re left (at least) to ponder what a ride would be like in a contraption such as this, while the grandkids may take one to work!