You might think drones are a new piece of technology, but they’ve actually existed since the year 1907. Of course, they were not as technologically advanced as they are today. Like any piece of technology, the history of remote-controlled drones shows that they went through a gradual and progressive change over the years.
Today, drones are an integral part of many different industries. They can capture high-definition photos and video and are used to create stunning TV shows and movies. They’ve also become very important for security, defense, construction, agricultural monitoring, and much more. Let’s take a look at the history of drones to see how they became such an important piece of technology.
Drones of the Past
In 1898, Nikola Tesla developed the first unmanned torpedo boat. He had intended for this boat to help de-escalate war conflicts without having to put humans in harm’s way. While this never fully became a reality, the technology that Tesla developed inspired the drones of the future.
This remote control boat was small and very lightweight. It used a portable control box that transmitted radio waves, which directed the ship where to go. Tesla could even flash the ship’s lights on and off. He first displayed this technology for a large crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York. Most people had never seen radio waves used in this way, and some even thought it was a form of magic. However, many people quickly realized the huge potential this technology could offer for the future.
In 1907, Professor Charles Richet and Jacques and Louis Breguet invented the first quadcopter drone. They called it the Gyroplane No. 1, and it weighed over 1200 pounds. It managed to ascend a few feet in the air on multiple flights, although it was tethered. The device’s weight made it very difficult to fly any higher than that. It also lacked an effective control system. Despite its limitations, this invention set the stage for the future of drones.
In the years following, the government was inspired by the quadcopter as well as Tesla’s remote-controlled boat. They wanted to implement some form of drone technology into their military operations, as this would make things more efficient and minimize risk for their troops. In particular, they wanted to use this technology during World War I.
In 1915, the Kettering Bug was used as an unmanned aerial torpedo, although it was not a remote-controlled drone. It could strike targets that were up to 120 km away, which gave the army much greater range while they were in battle.
Instead of using a remote control, the Kettering Bug used precise calculations to ensure it hit the right target. The device’s engineers would calculate the exact number of engine revolutions the torpedo needed to make to reach its destination. They would set the device for this precise number of revolutions, after which the aircraft would fall and bomb the target.
Engineers around the world continued to work on quadcopters, hoping for an efficient design that would be able to sustain flight for an extended period of time. French helicopter designer Etienne Oehmichen finally made this a reality in 1920. His quadcopter was efficient enough to stay in the air for several minutes at a time. This technology was the foundation for helicopters and remote-controlled drones in the future.
By World War II, the government had continued their work on drones and remote-controlled weapons. They developed a remote-controlled aircraft called the Radioplane OQ-2, which ended up becoming the first mass-produced drone in the world. Both the Army and the Navy used this drone during the war. It did not have landing gear, but instead relied on a parachute to land after it had dropped the bombs.
Drones of the Second Half of the 20th Century
Over the course of the 20th century, drone technology only got better. The government continued to improve on the original Radioplane, building the OQ-3 and the OQ-14. During the 1950s, the government continued to develop unmanned quadcopters and helicopters, although they weren’t used in combat at the time.
It wasn’t until 1973 that the very first “modern” style military drone was invented. The Israeli military created this drone during the Yom Kippur War. It was called the Mastiff, and it had the ability to conduct video surveillance by live-streaming video in real-time. It also could fly for a total of seven hours, which was unprecedented at the time. Over the years, the Israeli government developed three different generations of the Mastiff. This drone inspired governments around the world to build their own versions and increase their military capabilities.
In the 1980s, the US military worked with the Israeli government to develop a drone called the RQ2 Pioneer. This drone had many of the same capabilities as the original Mastiff, as well as some upgraded technology. The US Navy used this drone to carry large payloads of up to 75 pounds. It didn’t have the same longevity as the Mastiff, as it could only fly for five hours at a time. However, the larger payload made it very attractive to the military. This drone was also very versatile, as it could launch from a runway, catapult, or rocket.
This led to the US military’s first independent drone, which they developed in 1994. It was called the General Atomics AQ-1 Predator and it was able to fly without a pilot as one of the first U.S.-made remote-controlled drones. The military used it mainly for gathering intelligence information throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. This drone was much sturdier and quieter than previous iterations, which made it very appealing to the military. It could reach speeds of up to 135 miles per hour, and had a unique camera system that gave pilots better visibility. They could see both in front of the drone in the air, as well as everything below them. At first, the drone was only used for surveillance, but eventually, the government developed an armed version, which they used to attack terrorist organizations.
The predator was so effective that the US government continued to use the original version up until 2018. However, the armed forces continued to use later generations of this drone that had a similar design and upgraded features. The US Air Force and the CIA used this drone on some of their most important defense missions over the years.
Up until 2006, drones had only been used in military operations. But everything changed after oil companies started using them to analyze their pipelines in more rural and secluded areas. Soon companies in other industries started to find uses for drones as well. In particular, farmers found them very helpful for managing their crops. Large construction companies would also use them to manage their sites. Drones helped companies cut back on labor costs and manage their properties more efficiently.
Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration began issuing commercial licenses to companies that needed to use drones for their business practices. This paved the way for recreational drones to be introduced to the marketplace. Now, anyone can get a commercial drone license with the appropriate training and certification.
Remote-Controlled Drones of the Present
Nowadays, anyone can purchase a drone. They are used by photographers, hobbyists, vacationers, farmers, construction workers, realtors, filmmakers, law enforcement officials, and so many others. There are almost endless uses for drone technology. Their photography and video capabilities are unparalleled, and they can be incredibly fun to fly. Companies like DJI and Parrot have created luxury drones that are highly sought after and are popular for both commercial and recreational use.
Drones of the Future
No one knows for sure how much more advanced drone technology will get. The biggest rumor is that drones will be used by major online companies like Amazon for shipping products to their customers. While Amazon and other companies have been testing this service, it hasn’t become commonplace yet. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased demand for remote deliveries. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see these services implemented in the near future.
Drones may also be used by law enforcement agencies to monitor their local traffic. Since drone cameras are becoming more advanced, they may allow novice photographers to take commercial quality shots from any angle. Drones would enable law enforcement agencies to run more efficiently and be more accurate when it comes to prosecuting traffic violations. If drones were monitoring traffic, law enforcement officials would have more time to focus on serious violent crime.
Chinese companies are also working on remote-controlled passenger drones. These drones could serve as aerial taxis. They would likely also serve as a tourist attraction. Passenger drone models are still in the testing stage, but we could see them hit the market sometime over the next decade.
It is hard to believe that drone technology has been around for 120 years. What started as a military weapon has affected entire industries and become a very popular hobby. We can expect that drone technology will continue to flourish over the next century and beyond.