History of Drones: The Origin Of The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle


Drones have been a part of military culture since the late 1800s, but most people were, until recently, far more familiar with them in the context of Star Wars than in any real-life scenario. A little less than a decade ago, that changed, as the history of drones took a sharp turn and began to intersect citizens’ daily lives.

The history of drones is truly fascinating and, as they become a larger part of our daily lives, it can be particularly interesting to know a little background on these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What is a Drone?

drone flying over a meadow

A drone is called an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, because it flies and does not have a pilot inside the machine. While most of us think of drones as being relatively small, capable of being held under the arm, for example, some types of drones are actually quite large.

Certain types could hold a pilot simply by virtue of their size. However, the great advantage of drones is that they are not manned by a person and, by virtue of that fact, may be used in situations where a pilot’s life would be at risk or forfeit.

The Different Types of Drones

Throughout the history of drones, they have had many military uses. These uses tend to fall into one of six categories and have extended into the common classifications of drones. They are:

  • Target and decoy drones, which can be used for gunnery practice or to fool enemy shooters
  • Reconnaissance drones, which are much smaller and used for garnering intelligence
  • Combat drones, which actually can attack people or physical structures
  • Logistical drones, which are usually used to deliver cargo
  • Research and development drones, which generally are used experimentally to refine and improve other UAV-related technology
  • Civil and commercial drones, which may be used by any business to improve operations, goods, or services provided

Most of the drones you might use in your daily life fall into the “civil and commercial” category. They are handheld or close to it, often fitted with cameras, and may be piloted recreationally.

However, if you plan to use a drone in your business, you must have the right certifications. For example, if you use your drone to take pictures of houses for your real estate business, you need a license in order to do this.

Height, Speed, and Power

drone placed on top of a rock

Throughout the history of drones, engineers have constantly sought to improve their capabilities based on the goals of those engineers’ employers. The result is that drones eventually became fully commercial and available for recreational use at an affordable price, but the other result is that drones probably have capabilities you have never imagined.

For example, it is no longer “science fiction” to imagine that a drone might jet across a major ocean at supersonic speed, use facial-recognition technology to identify a fugitive from justice, then use that information to alert local authorities for arrest and extradition. In fact, it is common.

While recreational and hobbyist drones usually fly at relatively low altitudes of 2,000 to 5,000 feet and have only a few miles in their range, military drones can fly for thousands of miles and even, in some cases, reach suborbital levels of the atmosphere.

Not surprisingly, the more advanced your drone is, the more “personal touch” may be required to make it perform to your exact specifications. For example, a ready-to-fly (RTF) drone purchased off the local drugstore shelf will probably have limited capabilities in terms of range, speed, and altitude, but a drone that starts with just a bare frame can be customized to meet very specific needs.

Some bare-frame drones actually are ultimately designed to allow for unmanned or manned flight, making them far more flexible.

What Are Drones Used For?

People use drones for all sorts of things. However, the basic uses fall into three basic categories:

  • Military
  • Civilian
  • Transport

Depending on how you plan to use a drone, you might be unwittingly mirroring something another nation’s army actually tried far earlier in the history of drones! It is a credit to the individuals who develop these machines that their uses are so flexible and varied.

Military Uses

drone flying over the sky

The military has many uses for drones, and those uses are constantly expanding in scope and depth. As the history of drones expands, many military uses are now routinely employed in civilian life as well.

For example, the military uses drones to scope out enemy territory and map out unknown terrain. Not surprisingly, as drones get smaller, they are ideal machines for espionage tactics as well.

The military has used drones from the beginning to go where humans cannot, literally. For example, they make drones that are very small and look like insects or, in some cases, birds.

These little machines can land unobtrusively in places a human spy could never hide. As you will learn shortly, the history of drones is full of innovative uses for these machines revolving around espionage.

Other military uses include:

  • Target practice
  • Decoy purposes
  • Armed missions

Civilian Uses for Drones

quadcopter flying over the sky

On the civilian side, drones are becoming a daily part of our life experiences. While the history of drones has been largely undercover, these unmanned vehicles are now on full display.

What once would have been purely military usage now dominates civilian practice as the history of drones expands to include children, adults, and hobbyists of all ages. For example, little automated animal and insect drones paved the way for “robot pets.”

Of course, there are many uses for drones that intersect military and civilian use on the commercial side as well.

In medicine, the idea of using nanobot drones to deliver medicines directly to cancer cells or even to enable doctors to perform surgeries with minimal invasion is an exciting, drone-based development.

While many think of this technology as robotic technology, in reality, it hinges largely on the history of drones and their development as much as robotics.

Civilians are also incorporating uses for UAVs in the history of drones into their businesses. Not only are real estate agents using drones to take effective, powerful listing pictures, but filmmakers are beginning to incorporate drones into their filming to cut costs while increasing the range of angles they can shoot from and sports photographers now are able to get even more “power shots” of athletes during games. 

Of course, in today’s highly social-media-oriented world, many reality show stars and others who value their social media presence employ drone photographers and cinematographers to document their lives in stunning detail or use UAVs themselves to get incredibly unique, previously
impossible “selfies.”

Cargo Drones

flying drone carrying a package

The transport of cargo is another area in which military and civilian commercial uses throughout the history of drones intersect. It is such a significant part of the history of drones that we give it its own section instead of classing it as military or civilian. Probably the most common civilian experience with cargo drones is yet to come although most people are aware of it.

As online retailers perfect the delivery process using drones, more and more people will discover they are receiving their goods from a completely machine-based system rather than from the conventional “delivery guy” or “delivery gal.”

For the military, drones can be used in this same manner, but to deliver dangerous substances, arms, or even basic supplies to military members who may be trapped or hiding in otherwise inaccessible areas.

While a pilot touching down with a helicopter full of items would likely attract a great deal of attention, a number of smaller, quieter cargo drones could deliver much-needed items with far less risk of exposing an undercover group’s location.

Insight Into the History of Drones

So where does the history of drones really begin? The first recorded use of a UAV is, not surprisingly, a military one. In July 1849, Austria had laid siege to Venice. However, Austria was having trouble permeating the city’s defenses, so the military attempted to deliver a number of bombs to the city via balloon.

Those balloons were launched from both land and sea and, because they could not be piloted once launched, mostly failed to hit their mark. However, the minimal loss of life associated with the attack made it clear that UAVs would continue to play an important role in warfare from that point forward.

U.S. Drone Development

Not long thereafter, the Wright Brothers’ airplane company got in on the action in the arena of drone development. In the early 1900s, the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company created a “pilotless aerial torpedo” that could be set to explode at a specific time.

Not long after, another Dayton, Ohio, native, Charles Kettering, developed an unmanned plane to deliver “explosive payloads” to predetermined targets. Soon, many engineers were working to create remote-controlled aircraft delivery systems for use in warfare.

As the U.S. continued to engage in global conflicts like the Vietnam War and encounter serious threats from other nations like the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy began using drones in combat missions.

The first time these drones were photographed by the public, the U.S. government simply responded, “no comment.” However, the Chinese photographed downed UAVs as early as 1964, and drones became a silent part of the global arms race even though most people still believed them to be largely science-fiction.

Drones As Life Savers

Pretty soon, every major nation was working hard to develop effective drone technology for use in warfare. While the technology was often dangerous and expensive since equipment failures usually meant the entire drone crashed and was lost, most countries believed it was worth it because a downed drone was far better than a downed pilot.

By 2005, Israel, the European Union, China, and Syria all were using drones just like the U.S., albeit often with different technological advances. By 2013, there were 50 countries known to be building and using drones for military purposes.

Drones Entering the Mainstream

With so many countries working hard to develop new drone technology, it was only natural that drone manufacturing processes would become less expensive and, drones would become available for civilian use. As we described earlier, drones are now an essential part of many business practices and services.​

Many people expect food deliveries to be taken over by UAVs in the near future as well. Combined with artificial intelligence and robotics advances, drones could replace many humans in a variety of basic service-oriented jobs.

At present, mainstream, civilian and commercial uses of drones include:

  • Disaster relief
  • Archeological investigations
  • Surveillance
  • Journalism
  • Scientific research
  • Agriculture
  • Transportation of cargo
  • Film and cinema

Those uses will only expand as technology continues to evolve and basic human creativity continues to identify and then employ drone technology in new profitable and productive ways.

Of course, those developments may come with a price, such as eliminating jobs, so human ingenuity will be taxed to find other purposes as machines become an integral part of our daily lives.

The History of Drones Is Right Now

drone flying over the ocean and mountains

Drones have been around for more than 100 years in one form or another, but never before have they been so publicly prevalent. Recently, a number of civilian operators have used easy access to drones to create serious problems for local airports by flying large drones into public airspace, creating the appearance of a terror threat.

Some of these incidents were inadvertent, while others were fully intentional and successfully shut down international airports for extended periods of time while the drones were investigated.

If you plan to fly a drone, be sure you understand your rights and responsibilities as the pilot of that machine. Failure to do so could result in criminal charges and even fines and penalties for your business, not to mention lawsuits and litigation.

Make sure that your role in the history of drones is a good one by getting the right certifications and training and maintaining the right level of awareness that will keep you out of the history books for, say, shutting down Heathrow Airport. The potential for drone technology is limitless and stretches the boundaries of imagination. There has never been a more exciting time to be piloting a UAV than today.


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