A Not-So-Short History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

It is easy to see how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can be seen as a modern invention.

If we could travel back in time to just ten years ago, the idea of ordering a reliable flying camera online would seem more science fiction than science fact. This is especially true for easily accessible drones with payloads capable of producing thermal, multispectral, and LIDAR-based imagery.

You might be surprised to learn the first UAV dates back to 1783.

Modern technology moves at a somewhat rapid pace. It is easy to forget the building blocks that brought the UAV industry to where it is today. An appreciation for the past achievements that helped to give birth to the modern drone era is essential.

In this piece, we’ll review some of the most significant historical events related to the history of drones. In some cases, historical firsts were not specific to the UAV industry; however, they are relevant technological advancements.

Historical Timeline of UAV Technology

1783 – The First UAV 

When we think of UAVs, hot-air balloons are typically not part of the discussion.

From a technical standpoint, these crafts were the first aircraft to not require a human pilot. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier hosted the first public demonstration of an unmanned aircraft, a hot-air balloon in Annonay, France.

1849 – The First Military Use of UAVs

Austrian artillery lieutenant Franz von Uchatius invents the balloon bomb. Field Marshall von Radetsky used the balloons to attack Venice, but they were mostly ineffective.

1858 – First Aerial Photograph

 Gasper Felix Tournachon takes the first aerial photograph from a hot-air balloon in Paris, France. Unfortunately, the photograph has been lost in history.

1896 – First Camera on a UAV

Alfred Nobel, famous for the invention of dynamite, launches a rocket with a camera on it. Nobel’s experiment marks the first time cameras were placed on an unmanned system.

1898 – The First Radio-Controlled Craft

Nikola Tesla displays his radio-controlled boat for a crowd in Madison Square Garden.

The craft could respond to directional signals sent to it by Tesla and could also flash its lights. Some of the audience members thought Tesla was a magician or had the power of telekinesis. Others believed a trained monkey was inside the small boat.

It was a compelling demonstration of what would evolve into radio-controlled aircraft.

1915 – British Use of Aerial Reconnaissance Photos

During the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, British forces used aerial photography to build a map of the German front. The photographs were layout on top of one another and are one of the earliest examples of an orthomosaic.

1917 – First UAV Torpedo the Kettering Bug

Charles Kettering invented the unmanned Kettering Aerial Torpedo, nicknamed the “Bug” in Ohio.

The Bug used a system of pre-set internal pneumatic and electrical controls to stabilize the aircraft. When the Bug reached a pre-determined distance, the engine would stop, wings would detach, and the Bug would fall from the sky.

It carried 180 pounds of explosives.

1935 – The First Modern Drone is Developed

When the Royal Air Force’s commenced in 1918, the UK needed effective methods for training pilots.

Target practice was typically accomplished by towing gliders behind crewed aircraft. However, that method failed to provide a realistic simulation for engaging enemy fighters in live combat.

In response, the De Havilland DH.82B Queen Bee aircraft was used a low-cost radio-controlled drone developed for aerial target practice. It is considered by many to be the first modern drone.

1936 – US Drone Program Begins 

U.S. Admiral William Harrison Standley witnessed a test flight of the Queen Bee in 1936.

After returning to the U.S., he placed Lieutenant Commander Delmar Fahrney in charge of developing a program similar to the UK’s. It is believed that Fahrney first used the term “drone” for the U.S. platform as a tip of the hat to the UK’s Queen Bee.

1937 – U.S. Navy Develops a Radio-Controlled UAV Torpedo

The first radio-controlled UAV was the Curtiss N2C-2.

The N2C-2 received its commands from an operator located in a crewed aircraft that flew alongside the Curtiss. While this limited the UAV’s effectiveness, it was a significant step in the development of radio-controlled UAV technology.

1941 – Actor Reginald Denny invents the Radio Plane

The Radio Plane was a radio-controlled target plane.

After forming his company, Denny produced target drones for the military and was responsible for numerous drone technology innovations. By the time the Northrop Corporation bought the company in 1952, Denny’s company had produced almost 70,000 target drones for the US Army.

1943 – The Beginnings of First-Person View (FPV) Flight 

Boeing and the U.S. Airforce developed the BQ-7, which operated on a crude FPV system.

Old bombers were effectively stripped of non-essential equipment and loaded with explosives. A human pilot would fly the aircraft towards the designated target. Once the target was in view, the autopilot was engaged, and the pilot bailed out of the plane. The BQ-7 would then fly to the target on its own.

The BQ-7 was virtually ineffective in war, and the pilots that bailed out had a high rate of death or capture.

1973 – Israel Develops UAVs for Surveillance and Scouting 

The Mastiff and the IAA Scout series of UAVs represented a leap in the capabilities of drones.

Military commanders were able to increase their situational awareness with these platforms significantly.

1982 – Battlefield UAVs 

The Battle of Jezzine represented the first battle where drones made a considerable difference in the engagement’s outcome.

Israel employed their drones to outmaneuver the Syrian Airforce and win the battle with minimal casualties. The legitimacy of UAVs in warfare was established.

1985 – US Significantly Scales Up Drone Production 

By the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the U.S. was ready to scale up its drone program.

The successes of Israel’s UAV program in the early 1980s made it clear that drones would have a growing role on the battlefields of the future.

1986 – The RQ2 Pioneer Drone is Developed 

The U.S. and Israel jointly develop what will become one of the most successful UAV platforms to date.

The system was an upgraded IAI Scout drone and featured significant payload improvements. During the Gulf War, some Iraqi forces even surrendered to a Pioneer UAV.

1991 – UAVs Fly 24/7 During the Gulf War 

For the first time in a major conflict, at least one drone was airborne from the conflict’s start until its conclusion.

1996 – The Predator Drone is Developed

With the help of UAV giants like Abraham Karem, the U.S. develops the Predator drone. This platform brought weaponized drones to the battlefield like never before. Probably more than any other UAV, the Predator created the public image of drones striking targets around the world.

2006 – UAVs Permitted in US Civilian Airspace for the First Time 

Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the FAA allowed UAVs to fly in civilian airspace for search & rescue and disaster relief operations.

Predator drones with thermal cameras were able to detect the heat signatures of humans from up to 10,000 feet away. Around this time, the consumer drone industry began to really take shape.

While DJI had yet to become the marketplace giant it is today, companies like Parrot, DJI, 3DR, and many others were looking to take military UAV technology and repurpose it. The potential for industrial and consumer UAV markets was more than enough for many businesses to invest in the technology.

2010 – Parrot Controls a Drone with a Smartphone

At CES, French drone manufacturer Parrot unveiled its AR Drone.

The UAV was a small quadcopter fit for consumer use. An app on a smartphone was all the pilot needed to operate the drone safely.

2013 – DJI Produces the First Phantom Drone

While the company was founded in 2006, the iconic Phantom series was not released until 2013.

This drone began the modern camera-equipped drone craze. Within just a few years, DJI would hold a commanding position in the consumer drone market, with almost 80% of consumer drones in operation manufactured by DJI or one of their subsidiaries.

2013 – Major Companies Look to Start Drone Delivery

FedEx, UPS, Amazon, Google, Uber, and countless other delivery companies recognize drone benefits as a delivery platform. Testing of various UAV concepts and work with regulatory agencies around the world begins.

2014 – Use of Drones Rapidly Grows in Industry and with Consumers 

Since 2014, UAVs have continued to expand in capabilities and use cases.

As more industries explore how drones can make their work safer and more cost effective, growth is expected to rapidly surge in the coming years. By 2030, the entire UAV market is set to be worth $92 billion.

2020 – Pandemic Alleviation

From quarantine & social distancing enforcement to mass disinfection and medical supply delivery assistance, drones have been a staple during the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, more than ever before, regulations are being adjusted to provide fast-track authorizations for promising use-cases. It’s impossible to predict the long-term impact of these developments, but one thing is certain: the pandemic has helped countries around the world imagine the potential that drones hold for society.

What's Next?

If you are looking to explore what UAV technology can do for your organization speak with the experts at Consortiq. The historical achievements of the UAV industry can help shape your future successes.

This year alone, drones have become a been used to monitor penguins in Antarctica, assist farmers with crop output, take surveys of infrastructure, and even perform critical search-and-rescue missions for scores of emergency responders.

Sure, the technology seems new, but it’s certainly not unproven. And, as you’ve seen in this article, it’s been around for a very, very long time.

Many businesses are using drones to improve operations – with drones, there’s always a better way to do things. One that takes less time, doesn’t involve shutdowns, and improves safety.

Are you ready to see what drones can do for you and your organization? Just complete the form below and we’ll help you get started!

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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