These days you can see them all over the place. Drones at parks, drones at the lake… Amazon is even testing a drone-delivery plan. Drone technology is here to stay but really, it’s been a long time coming. Today we are going to talk a little about the history of drones so that you get a little idea just how far the idea of an unmanned aerial vehicle has come. We’ll discuss where it all started, how the technology has grown through the years, and how it is being used today. Let’s talk about drones!
1849: Drone history goes back further than you’d think
They say that military application is what drives technological innovation the fastest and world history seems to back that. Take the concept of the ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’. Pople pondered how they might strike out at their enemies from the sky well before planes and in Austria in 1849, someone found a way to do it. As the story goes, the Austrians were laying siege to Venice and inspiration hit… they decided to send 200 incendiary balloons, each carrying a 25+ pound bomb, floating towards the city. Many of them were launched directly from an Austrian ship, the SMS Vulcano, and while the concept was sound (timed fuses in floating death balloons), the wind was not with them. One or two may have found their mark, we are told, but the majority of the balloons were blown off course and more of them ended up hitting the Austrians than the Venetians. This wasn’t the end of the unmanned aerial assault concept by a long shot, of course, but we still had a long way to go.
1898: Tesla lays some important groundwork
In 1898 in an Electrical Exhibition the famous inventor, Nikola Tesla, showed off an invention that blew people’s minds. He had filed a patent for it which you can still see today (patent #613,809) for a remote control boat. The boat in question, a 4-foot craft made of steel, was low lying and though we haven’t mentioned it yet, RADIO hadn’t been patented yet. Mind you, Tesla filed a patent for that too, the year before, but that patent wouldn’t be granted until 1900.
Tesla was brilliant but as with many who are ahead of the times, misunderstood and unlucky to boot.
Not on this day, however, as the boat was demonstrated and Tesla was awarded the patent by stunned examiners and the first remote control vehicle was born. While the boat was big, it has batteries, running lights, and the propellers and rudders could be controlled. He’d even innovated an electric ‘switch’ that consisted of a can of metal oxide powder that oriented itself and became conductive in the presence of electromagnetic fields. After sending a pulse, ‘resetting’ it was as simple as flipping it over. This invention paved the way for a lot of technology to come, so we hope that every now and again you’ll raise your cap or cup to Tesla. He doesn’t get a lot of the credit that he should.
1907: The first Quadcopter
That four-propeller design that you see most commonly on drones today had its birth in 1907 when the brothers Breguet, working with a Nobel prize-winning Physiologist named Professor Charles Richet, designed and built the first quadcopter. It worked, but not spectacularly, as it could fly about two feet up and you couldn’t steer it. The materials that the Breguet brothers had to employ just weren’t the light alloys and plastics that we know and love today. While it’s easy to scoff or have a laugh at their expense, this was still quite the accomplishment, so if you own or fly a quad then raise a cup to the brother’s Breguet for making that possible!
1916: The Ruston Proctor Aerial Target – World War I innovation
How long does it take for innovation when it comes to warfare? Well, just 13 years after the Wright brothers had a famous flight in Kitty Hawk the first pilotless plane was developed and unveiled. The Ruston Proctor Aerial Target. Some say that the remote control was based on Tesla’s remote control boat technology, while others attribute it to an A.M. Low design, but whichever is true the Ruston Proctor had been built and was intended to be used against Zeppelins. Months after came the Hewitt-Sperry automatic airplane, affectionately known as a ‘flying bomb’. The ‘proof of concept’ vehicle was demonstrated to the U.S. army in 1917 and would lead to the development of an ‘aerial torpedo’ called the Kettering Bug. The drone race was officially on!
1943: World War II and the Fritz X
On August 24th 1943, the first German deployment of the Fritz X (aka the PC 1400 X) occurred, though the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force tells us that it’s most famous use was in sinking an Italian battleship known as the ‘Roma’, just off of the coast of Sardinia. So, what was the Fritz X? Imagine a 3,450 pound bomb, radio controlled, with a tail that could guide it towards the intended target. From a
“While you didn’t have a whole lot of control over it…”
height of 20,000 feet, the Fritz X was capable of piercing around 28 inches of armor. While you didn’t have a whole lot of control over it, its course could be altered enough to make a difference and later iterations of the Fritz X would be controlled by wire, rather than radio, in order to prevent jamming. Due to their size and weight, there were a limited number of German planes which could carry and use them and that, coupled with the poor accuracy, kept this early drone ancestor from getting much use in the War.
1960’s: Miniaturization breakthroughs
Breakthroughs in technology came in the form of more miniaturized components. Digital Trends, a popular technology website reminds us that this was especially the case with transistors. This meant that the average hobbyist had access to components to experiment with radio control on their own, so the number of RC planes began steadily to grow. Stores like Radio Shack were enjoying a brisk business with radio and RC enthusiasts alike and by 1967, Radio controlled helicopters were a thing. While they wouldn’t be readily available in kit form until around 1970 these were an important next step in developing the drones which we have today.
1982: Israel shows what Unmanned Aerial Vehicles can do
As Unmanned Aerial Vehicles continued to evolve they were, for the most part, viewed as simply ‘expensive toys’. The Israeli Air Force would change that with a decisive victory in a conflict with Syria that happened in 1982. Utilizing their drones for reconnaissance as well as to sabotage other electronics by jamming their frequencies, the Israelis also began flying the UAV’s next to regular aircraft for use as decoys. What resulted was the large scale destruction of Syrian aircraft and a minimized loss of life for the Israelis. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles would also see use in 1995 and 1996, respectively in the Balkans in Iraq, and the assistance of these light flyers would prove invaluable. Drones are definitely here to stay and soon would begin hitting the commercial market for personal and business uses.
2001: Military Drones are getting used
Fast-forward to 2001 and we get a demonstration of just where the technology had gone. Following the events of 9/11, Drones began being deployed in Afghanistan in an attempt to ferret out terrorists and to locate Osama Bin Laden. The CIA had their first ‘drone-kill’ operation in 2002 when it was thought that they had located Bin Laden. Tragically, the target turned out to be an innocent man by the name of Daraz Khan who had been collecting scrap metal. This raised important questions regarding the use of drones in modern warfare.
2006: Commercial Drone licenses become available
Technology goes from the military to civilian use quickly and the FAA began issuing commercial drone licenses in an attempt to help to impart some regulation. Rather than being overly restrictive, many areas that were previously forbidden to drone flight became available for personal or business drone use. Many drone types were becoming popular, such as the ‘plane-style’ fixed wing drones, quadcopters (4 propellers), octocopters (8 propellers), and more. With technology jumping in leaps and bounds we were starting to get a picture of what the drones of today would be like. They are nothing short of fantastic.
Modern day: Drones and their impact
Today’s drones are being to put to amazing uses and their impact and foreseeable impact is something worth talking about. While it is fun to fly them around there are a number of creative ways in which they are being deployed which are going to greatly shape our future. Here are some of those uses:
- Search and Rescue operations – When time is ticking and people need help, a drone can cover ground more quickly and more efficiently than any human. Thermal imaging, for instance, can locate someone faster than the naked eye and help to get rescue teams where they are needed by reducing the requirements and resources involved in a large search party.
- Animal conservation – Drones not only allow for the safer study of animals, but may be employed in tracking endangered species in order to count their numbers and can be used to alert authorities in regards to the threat of poachers.
- Disaster relief - Drones with 8 – 10 propellors come with the advantage of being able to lift larger payloads, which means in disaster situations that food and medical supplies can get to areas where they are needed quickly and efficiently.
- Tracking disease – The same thermal cameras that enable a drone to locate a person quickly can also be used to track animals, such as one application with Macaques in the Philippines. By tracking the movements of the Macaques in areas where malaria is known to be a danger, important data can be collected in regards disease vectors and transmission.
- Environmental protection – In Norway drones are being employed to ‘inspect’ the emissions of maritime vessels, helping to ensure that these are up to code and not producing prohibited amounts of pollution.
- Agriculture – Drones allow for ‘at a glance’ views of land plots, showing where water is needed or locations where planting is optimal. This is done through multispectral cameras and a growing ‘index’ that can indicate the health of crops and locate masses of weeds. Drones can also plant, as well, shooting nutrient-rich pods with seeds inside to help reduce human labor requirements and to ensure more efficient planting.
- Waste collection – Drones like ‘Ranmarine’ are cleaning up ports and harbors, by detecting waste and collecting it like a ‘Roomba of the Sea’. Some drones can also be used to obtain water samples in order to survey areas and as such, problems may be identified more quickly as the technology becomes adopted more widely for such uses.
- Mining inventories – With mining operations is is integral to always know the inventory of minerals, ores, and metals in any given location. Drones with special sensors can and do automate this process, performing inventories in less than an hour that would normally take a day or more. This is also excellent for safety purposes, as the drones can be around many materials that are caustic or require special preparations if a human is going to deal with them.
Today we have discussed the history of drones as well as gone into some current uses and how they are shaping our future. This technology has come a very, very long way and as you can see, the impact on our lives is already being felt. As more and more uses are opened up to this technology the sky is limit. Who knows? Maybe in a year or two when you want a coke, you’ll just have to ask your personal drone to get it for you! Here is to a bright future!
Google Patents; Nikola Tesla’s Patent
PBS; ‘Remote Control’
National Museum of the United States Air Force; “The “Fritz X” guided bomb”
Digital Trends; “ The History of Drones in 10 Milestones”