The History of Drones and How These Became What They Are Today

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.

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 the in the battlefield and its evolution

Image of David Margesson, Winston Churchill, and others waiting around for the launch of Queen Bee

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

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.

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.

OQ-3 Radioplane on its launcher

The 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.

Drones in the Modern Days

MQ-9 Reaper

MQ-9 Reaper on June 9, 2009.

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.

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 additaments and other 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

Jose likes to write about RC aviation gadgets and create informative posts and useful reviews on his site: https://www.rchobbiesonair.com. Help people to make informed decisions about how to buy drones, RC helicopters and RC airplanes, as well as providing up to date information on the latest models, is the primary intent of his site.

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