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The History of Drones & UAV

When somebody talks about drones these days, most people think about a flying device with a camera attached to it. However, it has not been like that all the time so let’s learn history of drones.

According to the Aviation Week Network, the first person to use the word Drone in aviation was the U.S. Navy Cmdr. Delmer Fahrney in 1936, when he was directed to develop pilot-less target aircraft.

Since then, the word drone has been used to describe a non-piloted air vehicle that was not a missile.

However, there are others who think that a drone is more a robot or android that will destroy whatever is needed to fulfill its mission.

It is the main reason why the vast majority of people in the UAS industry do not like the term to describe a pilot-less aerial vehicle.

Instead, other terms have got developed with time, such as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems), which describe better what a “drone” really is.

The debate of how you should call these devices continues today, but what keeps being undebatable is that UAS will continue to grow and shape the world we live.

It is why today we want to explore the history of drones to know more about where these great aircraft started.

How was it when drones got started?

The use of the first UAVs was in the battlefield, on August 22, 1849. The Austrian army attacked Venice, in Italy, with non-piloted balloons loaded which carried explosives, these were called the “Austrian balloons.”

Even when the idea today may seem ridiculously failable, this was a bold attempt for that time. However, if you thought about the chances of wind making vulnerable these vehicles, you are right.

On July 12 of the same year, some balloons were sent back over the Austrian by a current of air that was blowing in the opposite direction, and things suddenly changed for the Austrians.

However, it known that some balloons made it to enemy lines.

Drones in battlefield and its evolution

Drones as well have seen action in historical events like WWI and WWII. In 1917, an automated Airplane presented to US Army representatives, which achieved control with the use of gyroscopes created by the Sperry Gyroscope Company.

History of Drones
An image of David Margesson, Winston Churchill, and others waiting around for the launch of Queen Bee on 6 June of 1941

It is how the Army was able to build an “aerial torpedo” which resulted in the famous Kettering Bug, having its first light in the year of 1918.

It, however, was not complete in time for combat during WWI, and the bug never saw action in that period.

After the end of the WWI, more experimentation followed and resulted in the famous “DH.82B Queen Bee“. It is the name of “Queen Bee” what people believe eventually triggered the use of the word “drone” for pilot-less aircraft, mainly if they were radio-controlled.

During the WWII, Reginald Denny conducted the first large-scale production purpose-built drones. In 1934, he along with some business partners started a shop called “Reginald Denny Hobby Shops,” dedicated to model airplanes.

This shop then evolved into the “Radioplane Company,” which got awarded an army contract for an RC model called RP-4, the predecessor of the Radioplane OQ-2, which integrated the principles of flight for modern day drones.

On a side note, one of the factories of this company was the Van Nuys, and in 1944, David Conover, a photographer at the time, saw a young lady by the name of Norma Jeane. He thought that Norma had the potential for becoming a model.

History of the UAV
OQ-3 Radioplane on its launcher. Wright Field, in October of 1945

This “discovery” made Norma famous, and soon she replaced her name by Marilyn Monroe.

After the WWII period, the Radioplane Company continued to see success after success with target drones, called the Basic Trainer Target (BTT), which continued to get used until the end of the 1990s.

Drones as well were used in nuclear testing. In 1946, eight of the famous B-17, A.K.A. as Flying Fortresses were adapted to be remotely piloted, becoming drones for the use of radioactive data collection.

Again in 1947, these B-17s were used for similar purposes in Operation Sandstone, a series of nuclear weapon tests, and once more in the Operation Greenhouse in 1951.

After these events, drones also had a participation in the Vietnam war, as reconnaissance platforms.

The 147 Lightning Bug model series, served in the US Army at the end of the 1960s and beginnings of 1970s.

The short history of camera flight

Today, movie goers frequently encounter a god’s eye view shot on the big screen:

Mr.Robot season 3 all drone scenes

Shots like this one are usually taken by professional Los Angeles drone crews. Production companies only need to spare (relatively) small budget and three hours of time. But this wasn’t always the case.

This same shot once required a budget of over $50k and a stunt crew— but it didn’t stop filmmakers from pursuing the shot. From to planes, to helis, to drones, cinematographers have been attempting to tell stories with flying cameras since the beginning of the film industry.

In fact, aerial shots were implemented before the invention of sound and technicolor in film.

Here’s a brief history of film and flight, and what’s next.

Wings of War debut on screen

The first application of aerial cinematography was to put audience members into the action of war. Flying cameras were necessary to capture flying subjects.

Wings contains the first— and many would argue still the best— dogfight scene in cinematic history. Bold aerial cameramen had to fly alongside the stuntmen to capture the scene which earned the film the first ever Oscar in the “Best Picture” category.

Wings (1927) - First Dogfight Scene

The scene was convincing, in part, because the stunts were dangerous.

The actors weren’t pretending when they were jumping off the wings of a crashing airplane, and the cameramen were flying right alongside the action.

These precarious scenes resulted in the tragic death of one pilot and the hospitalization of another.

The film was still a huge success, igniting a generation of war films with similar stunts. And the demand for both aerial stunt actors and the cameraman to film them established a film aviation sub-industry.

The gimbal expands realm of possibility

While a plane was the first device used for aerial cinematography, it was not considered a camera platform in its own right.

Its speed and wind-induced shaking meant that it wasn’t conducive to capturing action on the ground.

It was the invention of the gimbal that literally raised the ceiling for filmmaking.

A French camera operator named Roger Monteran, hired for the film, The Longest Day, designed the first camera stabilizer: a simple mechanical device that cushioned the camera with springs that dampened the vibrations from the helicopter.

The Longest Day - Harbour

This is one of the earliest scenes captured by a stabilized camera in a helicopter. You can tell the early stabilizer is still shaky.

This design served as a prototype for Nelson Tyler’s more sophisticated stabilizer, which similarly isolated vibrations, but also offered more control over the angle and discrete movement of the camera.

The operator, hanging off the side of the helicopter, could now pan, tilt, and roll a stabilized camera shot. You can see it’s early applications in the 1966 Batman:

And, most famously, in the long-take shot in Funny Girl (1968):

Funny Girl Helicopter Shot NY Harbor Tugboat recipient SOC Historical Shot Award 2008

The Tyler Camera Mount cemented aerial shots as a part of cinematography. An aerial shot no longer required death-defying aviation stunts and thrill-seeking talent.

Filmmakers had more options for how a camera is flown through the air.

Camera flight becomes accessible to all

It seemed as if aerial footage would remain a luxury in filmmaking— until Hollywood caught whiff of technological advancements to military drones.

In the mid 2000s, camera-equipped flying robots were making headlines for infamous Israeli reconnaissance missions and America’s capture of Bin Laden. But in the years following, technological advancements made these drones more accessible to other sectors:

  • LiPo technology improved the battery life of drones
  • GPS positioning technology improved precise control over a drone
  • Smartphone technology improved the quality of cheap sensors and computing power; and
  • Brushless motors improved the durability and safety of drones.
  • It became easier than ever to fly a camera.

Films like Skyfall, Oblivion, and Star Trek: Into Darkness were among the first to use drones as camera platforms abroad.

When the FAA set up permitting for commercial drone applications in the United States, they opened up the floodgates.

By the end of 2015, there were 1000 commercial permits and by the end of 2016, there were 20,000.

Initially, it was clear that the drone was a cheaper, safer alternative to the helicopter, but the technology has evolved to be much more.

The quality of cameras found on DJI’s Inspire 2 drones and the stabilization equipment produced by manufacturers like Freefly has significantly changed what “flying a camera” means.

A drone isn’t just used to get high-and-wide aerial shots, it can be used on the ground, chasing a character through a house, diving off a cliff, or circling the perimeter of a circus tent.

Dexter Kennedy, chief pilot of Los Angeles drone company Aerobo, explains, “A filmmaker can now essentially place a camera anywhere in 3D space.

They can replace a crane, a dolly, and a Steadicam with drone— and spend no time setting up any sort of rigs.”

What’s Next: Returning Creative Control to the Filmmaker

We’ve come a long way from the precarious stunts necessary to pull off an aerial shot, and the journey is far from over.

As drone technology improves, the technical and regulatory hurdles will decrease and more people will have the ability to get their hands on a flying camera.

Drones in modern days

These fantastic devices had its beginning on the battlefield, where they started as balloons guided by the air, until today, when Drones are piloted using GPS and cameras that live-stream video to a remote operator.

Also, these platforms developed today are not just for scouting but also for attack and combat support.

UAV history
MQ-9 Reaper on June 9, 2009.

You may be familiar with the Predator series of drones, which are the ones appearing in Hollywood films such as Mission Impossible and Transformers.

These are the modern models of the drones used for combat.

However, in the modern days, drones have also extended their capabilities to the commercial arena, having critical roles in construction, filmography, oceanic exploration, volcanic research, and much more.

Drones are still seeing its development in the military applications, but since 2015, when commercial drones became famous, enthusiasts around the globe started to develop exciting tools to extend the use and capabilities of commercial drones.

Today, the drones industry is experiencing tremendous growth, and the trending is up-high.

Just so you have an idea, by 2021, the drones market is to expected to surpass the USD 12 billion.

Back in 2010, when the first commercial drones appeared, a big budget was needed if you wanted to get one of these fantastic devices, but today, the technology has evolved, and some of the best drones a beginner can buy can found for less than $100.

The commercial applications that drones have been continuously getting expanded, and some more discovered as new tools added to these devices.

Whatever the future looks like, one thing is sure: drones are here to stay, and the history of drones will continue to write along with the history of the world.

By Jose Lozano

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