A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers

From the first pilotless aircraft to today's DIY drones, the technology has come a very long way indeed. Find out how.
Kashyap Vyas
  • Although initially built for military purposes, drones have seen rapid growth and advancements and made a break to consumer electronics. 
  • Their original use was as weapons in the form of remotely-guided aerial missile deployers.
  • However, today, drones have found civilian applications, especially in a wide range of applications for civilian use, especially in small quadcopters and octocopters.

Today, drones are used for various functions, including monitoring climate change, delivering goods, aiding search and rescue operations, and filming and photography.

Of course, UAVs are also an increasingly important part of the military in many countries. American armed forces have a fleet of tens of thousands of drones today, compared to just a few twenty years ago. This is dwarfed, however, by the number of drones in private use. According to the FAA, there are just over 855,000 drones registered in the U.S. as of the start of 2023.

But where did it all begin? Let's find out.

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Countries with armed drones.

What is considered to be a drone?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the history of drones, it might be helpful to define what we are talking about. 

According to various dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster, a drone tends to be defined as "an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers." - Merriam Webster. While the term also has other meanings, for the context of this article, a drone is, in effect, an unmanned flying object either controlled remotely or operating entirely autonomously. 

"A drone, in technological terms, is an unmanned aircraft. ... Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems, working in conjunction with onboard sensors and GPS," as defined by the Internet of Things Agenda

Here we will focus on this particular aspect of drone technology. 

Some of the earliest military drones appeared in the mid-1850s

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Drones have a surprisingly long history.

The concept of drones may well date back to 1849 when Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons stuffed with explosives. Austrian forces, besieging Venice at the time, launched around 200 of these incendiary balloons over the city.

Each balloon carried between 24 lbs (11 kg) and 30 lbs (14 kg) of bombs. Once in position, these bombs were dropped from their carrier balloons to wreak havoc on the city below. Fortunately for the Venetians, only one bomb found its mark, as most of the balloons were blown off-course due to a sudden change in wind direction. 

As innovative as this event was in the field of military technology, the use of balloons does not meet the current definition of drones, especially military drones, as we have seen above.

That being said, it is exciting to see the basic concept of drones being considered by military technologists more than 170 years ago. This kind of thinking would drive drone technological development over the coming centuries and decades. 

One of the first quadcopters appeared in the early-1900s

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
An early form of quadcopter.

One common feature of many modern commercial drones is the quadcopter configuration. Early development of this technology appeared in 1907, when brothers Jacques and Louis Bréguet, with the help of French physiologist Professor Charles Richet, developed an early example with their gyroplane, a forerunner of the helicopter.

For its time, the design of the copter was visionary. Although it achieved the first ascent of a vertical-flight aircraft with a pilot, it only reached a height of 0.6 meters. It was also not a free flight, as four men were needed to steady the structure. 

That being said, it did demonstrate that the concept of a quadcopter would work for flight -- it would just take more technological development to make it viable.

Again, as the incendiary balloon used by the Austrian army more than 50 years before, this was still not technically a drone as we know it today.

1915-1920 saw a giant leap forward in drone technology

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
An early drone aircraft.

Moving forward a bit in time, the first pilotless aircraft was developed in 1916, after the outbreak of  World War I. Called the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target, these pilotless military drones used a radio guidance system developed by British engineer Archibald Low. Using a hand-picked team of around 30 men, Low rapidly built a pilotless plane launched from the back of a truck using compressed air (also a first). In 1917, Low and his team invented the first wireless rocket. The Germans would later adapt the technology for this for their V1 rocket program in WWII.

Although Low's projects had some success, and Low was nicknamed “the father of radio guidance systems,”  his work was not followed up by the British military after the war. The British government did not appreciate the cutting-edge nature of Low's work, although the Germans certainly understood its importance - they made two attempts to assassinate Low.

Shortly after this, the U.S. Army built the Kettering Bug, which used gyroscopic controls and was intended to be used as an “aerial torpedo.” Each "Bug" was launched from a four-wheeled dolly that rolled down a portable track. 

"After a predetermined time, a control closed an electrical circuit, which shut off the engine. Then, the wings were released, causing the Bug to plunge to earth -- where its 180 pounds (82 kg) of explosive detonated on impact," according to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Around 50 of the "Bugs" were built by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Co., but they arrived too late to see any combat.

1930-1945 saw other significant leaps forward in military drone technology

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Pre- and post-WW2 saw further refinements in drone technology.

After WW1, UAV technological developments continued unabated. In the 1930s, the U.S. Navy began experimenting with radio-controlled aircraft, which resulted in the development of Curtiss N2C-2 Drone in 1937. In 1935, the British developed “Queen Bee,” a radio-controlled target drone, which is also believed to have led to using the term “drone” for radio-controlled unmanned aircraft.

Radioplane OQ-2, a remote-controlled model airplane developed by British actor Reginald Denny and engineer Walter Righter in the 1930s, became the first mass-produced UAV product in the U.S. Nearly 15,000 drones were manufactured for the military during the war.

However, the credit for inventing a radio-controlled aircraft that could fly out of sight goes to Edward M. Sorensen, who patented an invention that used a ground terminal to track the airplane's movements. Before this development, early RC aircraft could only operate within the visual sight of the controlling pilot.

However, the most notable event of the Second World War concerning drones was the emergence of the V-1 "Doodlebugs" of the German army. Fitted with pulsejets, these crafts were the world's first-ever cruise missiles. 

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
The V-1 was an early form of cruise missile.

They were used in a campaign of "terror bombing" in British cities like London to demoralize the British public. Their guidance system used a simple autopilot to control altitude and airspeed; gyroscopes controlled yaw and pitch; the azimuth was maintained using a magnetic compass; a barometric device was used to control altitude. The gyros, rudder, and elevator were controlled using pressurized air.

The technology was later reverse-engineered by the Americans, who developed their pulsejet-powered unmanned aerial drones like the TD2D-1 Katydid and Curtiss KD2C.

The Vietnam War saw the first use of drones with cameras for reconnaissance

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Ryan Model 147.

Leaping forward a few more years, the next big step in drone technology occurred during the Vietnam War. This war saw the first widespread deployment and use of drones as dedicated reconnaissance UAVs.

Also, "drones also began to be used in a range of new roles, such as acting as decoys in combat, launching missiles against fixed targets, and dropping leaflets for psychological operations," according to the Imperial War Museum, London

In the late 1950s, the U.S. spy plane, the manned SR-71 Blackbird, was still in development, and spy satellites were not ready for deployment yet. What was needed were specialized UAVs to gather information in combat areas safely. Some models did exist, like the Ryan 147Bs, but these need to be piggybacked on C-130s and parachuted to the ground in friendly territory to recover any information they gathered. 

The need for drones also occurred in many other nations worldwide, which also began to explore the use of UAVs for various military applications. New drone models became more sophisticated as designers focused on improving endurance and the height at which the drones could safely operate. 

Recreational RC planes became prominent during the 1960s and 1970s

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
The first commercial recreational drones took off in the 1960s.

Thanks to breakthroughs in transistor technology at this time, radio-controlled components could now be miniaturized enough to be sold to civilian customers at a reasonable cost. This led to something of a boom in RC planes during this decade.

Planes began to appear in kit form, allowing enthusiasts to build and fly RC craft indoors or outdoors. Hobbyists also started a large number of RC aircraft clubs. This created a cottage industry, which would speed up the development of commercial RC technology. 

Assault military drones were seriously beefed up during 1980-1989

Even though the U.S. achieved a breakthrough in the mass manufacturing and supply of drones for the military, UAVs were often considered unreliable and expensive. This perspective changed in 1982 when Israeli forces used unmanned aircraft to gain a victory over the Syrian Air Force with minimal losses.

The U.S. also began the Pioneer UAV Program in 1980 to build an inexpensive drone for fleet operations. A joint project by the U.S. and Israel in 1986 led to the development of the RQ2 Pioneer – a medium-sized reconnaissance aircraft. Also, during this period, drone developers began focusing on alternative power sources for drones. One obvious source was solar power.

This led to some interesting solar-powered drones being developed, including the AeroVironment HALSOL

1990-2010 was a pivotal period for military and civilian drone development

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Modern military drones became a thing in the 1990s.

Mini- and micro-versions of UAVs were introduced in 1990, and the famous Predator drone was introduced in 2000. This was used in Afghanistan to launch missiles and in the search of Osama Bin Laden. In the following years, several small-sized, fixed-wing surveillance drones such as Raven, Wasp, and Puma were developed by AeroVironment Inc.

Raven is used in several countries, with tens of thousands of units deployed.

2006 was another pivotal year in the history of drones. This was the year the FAA officially issued the first commercial drone permit.

However, consumer applications were slow to start, with very small numbers of people applying for permits in the first few years. 

2010-today might be the "Golden Age" of drones

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
The last decade has seen a surge in drone technology advancements.

The last ten years have seen a huge explosion in drone innovation and commercial interest. While before this, drones were primarily used for military purposes or hobbyists; beginning in the early-2010s, a host of new uses were proposed for drones, including their use as delivery vehicles.

By the middle of the decade, the FAA saw a massive growth in demand for drone permits, with around 1000 commercial drone permits issued in 2015.

This number tripled one year later and has continued to grow exponentially since. Equipping drones with cameras is now commonplace in commercial photography and videography. This results from merging radio-controlled (RC) aircraft and smartphone technology.

The rapid growth in the usage of smartphones reduced the prices of microcontrollers, accelerometers, and camera sensors, which are ideal for use in fixed-wing hobbyist aircraft. Further advances allowed a drone with four or more rotors to be controlled by adjusting the speed of individual rotors. Improving the stability of multirotor aircraft opened up new possibilities for them to be used in several ways.

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Drones are used for many purposes today, including for deliveries.

The use of DIY drones is also becoming more popular. Because of their smaller size and portability, DIY drones have the potential to be used by police forces and fire services for surveillance.

However, the growing use of unregulated UAVs has also raised questions about privacy and physical safety. With the war in Ukraine, we have also seen the extensive use of drones for various roles in combat as cheap, disposable reconnaissance craft or bomb delivery platforms. If military history is anything to go by, other militaries worldwide will watch this conflict closely.

What is the future of drones?

The future of drones looks highly promising. Gartner predicts that the global drone market will grow substantially over the next few years.

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
What will the future look like for drones?

For example, Business Insider expects global drone shipments to rise to 2.4 million by 2023 -- a 66.8% compound annual growth rate. "Drone growth will occur across the four main segments of the enterprise industry: Agriculture, construction and mining, insurance, and media and telecommunications," explains Business Insider.

For military applications, drones are expected to become smaller and lighter with much longer battery life and flight times. There will also be developments in improving drone optics and other capabilities further. In the civilian market, developments in improving flight times allow them to serve as delivery platforms for emergency services and data collection in areas too dangerous for humans, such as power plants or fires.

Some countries have also deployed drones for home security and crowd control. While a worrying development, authorities in some areas are likely to continue using drones for this type of surveillance.  Miniaturization is also expected to play a massive role in the future of drones. Drones will also dramatically reduce their size as components are made smaller and smaller.

It is not inconceivable that micro-drones will become commonplace in military and commercial/industrial applications in the not-too-distant future. Much like the recent pocket-sized drones recently commissioned by the U.S. Army. 

A brief history of drones: from pilotless balloons to roaming killers
Drones that can fit in your pocket exist now. What about in ten years time?

Who knows, perhaps microscopic drones might not be too far away. Development in flight control algorithms, machine vision, and onboard processing power will enable drones to make decisions rather than rely on human input, further improving the drones' reaction time and speed.  

And that is your lot for today.

Despite the great potential for drones to be used as a weapon, several groups have also raised questions about the ethics of this type of remote weaponry, given the possibility of errors resulting in the deaths of civilians because of inaccurate data.

Others also claim that UAVs threaten privacy and safety, while others believe that this is outweighed by their potential to be used for the better. Whatever the opinions are, drones are expected to increase in number as they become smarter and more capable and find uses in a broader number of industries and a more comprehensive number of roles in the future.

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