The History of Drones

Learn about how unmanned aerial vehicles took over the skies.

UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (drone) attack
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As fascinating as drones are, they often come with a feeling of uneasiness. On the one hand, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have allowed U.S. military forces to turn the tide in numerous overseas conflicts and in the fight against terror without risking the life of a single soldier. Yet there’s concern that the technology can fall into the wrong hands. And while they’re also a big hit among hobbyists for being able to provide a wonderful vantage point for capturing breathtaking aerial video footage, some people are understandably worried about privacy issues—being spied on in our backyards.

But keep in mind that UAVs have had a long and established history that dates back centuries. What’s changed, however, is that the technology has become increasingly sophisticated, lethal and accessible to the masses. Over time, they’ve been used in various capacities such as an eye-in-the-sky form of surveillance, as an “aerial torpedo” during World War II, and as armed aircraft during the war in Afghanistan. Here now is a comprehensive history of how drones have changed warfare, for better and for worse.

Tesla’s Vision

The remarkably clairvoyant inventor Nikola Telsa was the first to foresee the coming of militarized unmanned vehicles. It was one of several futuristic predictions that he made while speculating on the potential uses for a remote control system he was developing at the time.

In the 1898 patent “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles” (No. 613,809), Telsa described, in a seemingly prophetic tone, the wide range of possibilities for his new radio-control technology:

The invention which I have described will prove useful in many ways. Vessels or vehicles of any suitable kind may be used, as life, despatch, or pilot boats or the like, or for carrying letters packages, provisions, instruments, objects… but the greatest value of my invention will result from its effect upon warfare and armaments, for by reason of its certain and unlimited destructiveness it will tend to bring about and maintain permanent peace among nations.

About three months after filing the patent, he gave the world a glimpse of how such a technology might work. At the annual Electrical Exhibition held at Madison Square Garden, before a stunned audience of attendees, Tesla gave a demonstration in which a control box that transmitted radio signals was used to maneuver a toy boat along a pool of water. Outside of a handful of inventors who had already been experimenting with the technology, few people had even known about the existence of radio waves

Militaries Enlist Unmanned Aircraft 

Armed forces at the time were already beginning to see how remotely-controlled vehicles may be used to gain certain strategic advantages. For example, during the Spanish-American war of 1898, the U.S. military was able to deploy camera-attached kites to take some of the first aerial surveillance photographs of enemy sites. An even earlier example of a military’s use of unmanned vehicles took place earlier in 1849 when Austrians successfully attacked Venice with balloons packed with explosives.

But it wasn’t until around World War I that militaries started to experiment with ways to further Tesla’s vision and to integrate a radio-controlled system into various types of unmanned aircraft. One of the first costly and elaborate efforts was the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, a collaboration between the U.S. Navy and inventors Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt to develop a radio-controlled airplane that can be used as a pilotless bomber or flying torpedo.

Directive Gyroscopes

Crucial to this objective was perfecting a gyroscope system that could automatically keep the aircraft stabilized. The auto-pilot system that Hewitt and Sperry eventually came up with featured a gyroscopic stabilizer, a directive gyroscope, a barometer for altitude control, radio-controlled wing and tail parts and a gearing device that measures distance flown. Theoretically, this would enable the aircraft to fly a pre-set course in which it would either drop a bomb onto the target or simply crash into it.

The proof-of-concept was encouraging enough that the Navy supplied seven Curtiss N-9 seaplanes to be outfitted with the technology and poured an additional $200,000 into the Automatic Airplane’s development. Ultimately, after several failed launches and wrecked prototypes, the project was scrapped. However, they were able to pull off one flying bomb launch to show that the concept was at the very least plausible.

The Kettering Bug

While the navy backed Hewitt and Sperry’s Automatic Airplane idea, the U.S. army commissioned another inventor, General Motor’s head of research Charles Kettering, to work on a separate “aerial torpedo” project. To help get the project off the ground, they also tapped Elmer Sperry to develop the torpedo’s control and guidance system and brought in Orville Wright as a consultant. That collaboration resulted in the Kettering Bug, a computerized, auto-piloted biplane programmed to carry a bomb directly toward a pre-determined target.  

In 1918, the Kettering bug completed a successful test flight, which quickly prompted the army to place a large order for the production of the unmanned aircraft. However, the Kettering bug suffered the same fate as the Automatic Airplane and was never used in combat, partly because officials were concerned the system may malfunction before reaching enemy territory. But looking back, both the automatic airplane and Kettering bug both played significant roles as they are considered to be the forerunners to modern day cruise missiles.

From Target Practice to Spy in the Sky

The post-World War I period saw the British Royal Navy take the early lead in the development of radio-controlled unmanned aircraft, purposing them primarily as “target drones.” In this capacity, UAVs were programmed to mimic the movements of enemy aircraft during anti-aircraft training, basically serving as target practice and often getting shot down. One drone that was often used, the radio-controlled version of the de Havilland Tiger Moth airplane called the DH.82B Queen Bee, was thought to be from which the term “drone” derived from. 

That initial head start, however, was relatively short-lived. In 1919, Reginald Denny, a serviceman of the British Royal Flying Corps, emigrated to the United States and opened a model plane shop that eventually became Radioplane Company, the first large-scale producer of drones. After having demoed a number of prototypes to the U.S. Army, Denny’s one-of-a-kind business got a huge break in 1940 by procuring a contract for the manufacture of Radioplane OQ-2 drones. By the end of World War II, the company had supplied the army and navy with fifteen thousand drones.

Besides drones, the Radioplane Company was also known for launching the career of one of the most legendary Hollywood starlets. In 1945, Denny’s actor friend and later president Ronald Reagan, sent a military photographer named David Conover to capture snapshots of the factory workers assembling Radioplanes for the army’s weekly magazine. One of the employees he photographed, a young lady named Norma Jean, would later quit her job and work with him on other photoshoots as a model, eventually changing her name to Marilyn Monroe. 

Combat Drones

The World War II era also marked the introduction of drones in combat operations. In fact, the battle between the Allied and Axis powers ushered in a return to the development of aerial torpedoes, which can now be made to be more precise and destructive. One particularly devastating weapon was Nazi Germany’s V-1 rocket AKA the Buzz Bomb. The “flying bomb,” designed for civilian targets in cities, was guided by a gyroscopic autopilot system that helped carry a 2,000-pound warhead upwards of 150 miles. As the first wartime cruise missile, it led to the deaths of 10,000 civilians and injured around 28,000 more.

After World War II, the U.S. military started repurposing target drones for reconnaissance missions. The Ryan Firebee I, which demonstrated in 1951 the ability to stay aloft for two hours while reaching an altitude of 60,000 feet, was among of the first unmanned aircraft to undergo such a conversion. Turning the Ryan Firebee into a reconnaissance platform led to the development of the Model 147 FireFly and Lightning Bug series, both of which were used extensively during the Vietnam war. During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military turned its focus toward stealthier spy aircraft. A notable example of this is the Mach 4 Lockheed D-21.

Attack of the Armed Drone

The notion of armed drones (that weren’t guided missiles) being used on the battlefield wasn’t sufficiently considered until around the start of 21st century. The most suitable candidate, the Predator RQ-1, manufactured by General Atomics, had been tested and put in service since 1994 as a surveillance drone capable of traveling a distance of 400 nautical miles and can stay airborne for 14 hours straight. More impressively, it can be controlled from thousands of miles away via a satellite link.

On October 7th, 2001, armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, a Predator drone launched the first ever combat strike by a remotely piloted aircraft in Kandahar, Afghanistan in an effort to take out Mullah Mohammed Omar, a suspected Taliban leader. While the mission failed, the event marked the dawn of a new era of militarized drones.

Since then, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as the Predator and General Atomics’ larger and more capable MQ-9 Reaper has completed thousands of missions and yet unintentionally has taken the lives of at least 6,000 civilians, according to a report in The Guardian. The U.S. President Obama released statistics of drone use in 2016, stating that since 2009, 473 strikes had killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants.