Drones may be a relatively new phenomenon, but they actually have their roots in the late 19th century, back when Nikola Tesla first patented an “unmanned vehicle control,” which he predicted would be so deadly that “by reason of its certain and unlimited destructiveness…will bring about and maintain permanent peace among nations.” His patent, which was, more specifically, for “Method of and apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles,” was granted in November of 1898. It read as follows:
“In a broad sense, then, my invention differs from all of those systems which provide for the control of the mechanism carried by a moving object and governing its motion in that I require no intermediate wires, cables, or other form of electrical or mechanical connection with the object save the natural modia in space. I accomplish, nevertheless, similar results and in a much more practicable manner by producing waves, impulses, or radiations which are received through the earth, water, or atmosphere by suitable apparatus‘ on the moving body and cause the desired actions so long as the body remains within the active region or effective range of such on currents, waves, impulses, or radiations.” (United States Patent Office)
Tesla first introduced his vision via a small unmanned boat at an exhibition in Madison Square Garden. The unmanned vehicle appeared to change direction upon verbal command, a trick that wowed the audience. In actuality, however, he was using radio frequencies to switch the motors on and off. Still, his idea was so powerful that it warranted further exploration, and it wasn’t long before those radio waves were discovered and used to bring Tesla’s real vision to life. However, it would be decades before drones got to the point they are at today, as there was quite a bit of trial and error along the way.
Let’s Take a Step Back to Pre-Tesla Days
Before Tesla came up with the patent for his unmanned apparatus, the Austrians launched approximately 200 unmanned balloons equipped with explosives over the city of Venice. That was in 1849. Less than 20 years later, both Confederate and Union forces used similar balloons for scouting missions in the U.S. Civil War. In 1896, Samuel P. Langley wowed Washington D.C. as he flew unpiloted aircraft, powered by steam, along the Potomac River for a full 90-seconds, during which the world gained its first glimpse at the future, and the same year that Tesla released his patent, the U.S. military introduced the concept of aerial surveillance by attaching a U.S. military camera to a kite. These were used in the Spanish-American war.
Drones in World War I
Once it was discovered that unmanned vehicles could be used to drop bombs and keep an eye on the enemy, cogs really started moving to produce the type of technology necessary to create a truly unmanned flying vehicle, or the UAV as we know it today. In World War I, aerial surveillance was used to capture series of images that were used to form mosaic maps. Forces would use these images to track enemy movements. By the end of the war, a whopping 19,000 aerial images were taken and an outstanding 430,000 prints were collected after the war. These prints were just from the five-month Battle of the Somme in 1916.
During the war, the U.S. worked on developing a drone that could carry bombs to the target. While many prototypes were tested, it wasn’t until 1918, the end of the war, that a successful prototype made its debut. The Kettering “Bug” did exactly as the military envisioned, but by the time prototypes were perfected, the war was over.
Despite the Kettering Bug having the capabilities to carry a bomb to the exact target, they weren’t an ideal option for military forces. Drones were expensive, but they were feeble, oftentimes getting destroyed by other bigger, more complex machinery. For many forces, the cost of replacing broken drones was not worth it.
On the other hand, rockets were cheap, and they were destructive, but they were erratic. Their unpredictability made military units wary of using them. There was really no telling if a rocket would head towards the intended target or if it would do the exact opposite and come right back at the plane that had launched it. moreover, to ensure that a rocket did reach its intended destination, it wasn’t uncommon to launch multiple rockets at once, which ended up being a huge drain of resources anyways. It was a Massachusetts Dentist, Dr. Henry W. Walden, who eventually solved this problem by developing a prototype for a rocket that could be steered by a pilot who would be stationed in a mothership.
Walen was granted a patent, but because he never received an endorsement from the government, he failed to pay the patent fee. His idea wasn’t realized for years when the Germans developed radio-guided rockets to use in WWII.
Drones in WWII
The Fritz X was introduced by the Germans in September of 1943, when its military used it against Allied Ships in the Mediterranean. This Fritz X did demonstrate a fraction of the destructive potential that Tesla warned about when it sank Italian battleship Roma and severely damaged battleship Italia. However, it was more of a missile than the drone that previous leaders originally envisioned. The Fritz was operated by using a joystick and transmitter, and the cruciform tail is what ultimately ensured that the bomb was on the right trajectory.
Other country’s soon followed suit, and soon each military seemingly had faster, stronger and more accurate missiles to fire at each other. For a time, the missile replaced the whole concept of an assault drone, and talks of drones and research to build them quieted down.
Except for the Gemini project, in which NASA developed unmanned spacecraft to help astronauts complete their docking missions, there was little drone development going on between the 60s and 80s. The U.S. did develop a more easily controlled “cruise missile,” which were like miniature aircraft in and of themselves, but though they could maintain a lift and be guided in flight, they couldn’t sustain a hover as drones today can, and they didn’t return home; rather, they landed where they eventually fell. It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that the field of technology eventually made the complex advancements necessary that make modern-day drones possible. Once the technology was there, the Air Force began working in earnest on equipping drones with missiles.
1995: The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator UAV
In 1995, the drone that would change the face of drones was envisioned. The Predator Program, as it was known as, was a mission by the U.S. government to create an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. The UAV is the closest any government has come to producing a product that is without a doubt an aircraft. The MQ-1 featured a bulbous nose which housed the satellite antennae, long, thin wings like those of a glider, a small glider mounted to the tail and an inverted v-tail, which gives it its foreboding look, as if it is saying that it doesn’t need rest. A small camera pod hangs from the front, effectively giving the military the hovering surveillance equipment it had been striving toward. Best of all, however, the plane-like object was equipped with Hellfire antitank missiles which could be fired at targeted objects.
The Predator continued to be called a UAV until Bob Woodward, a writer for the Washington Post, reintroduced the term “drone” to the vernacular in his article, CIA Told to Do ‘Whatever Necessary’ to Kill Bin Laden. Whether he used the dated term to refer to the old war technology that attempted to do what the Predator can do or because he was tired of all the acronyms surrounding the technology; what is clear is that the term stuck, and once again, the term “drone” was given a whole new meaning.
2010 – Present: The Modern-Day Drone
In 2010, French-based company Parrot unveiled the Parrot AR. Drone at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The quadcopter looked nothing like the drones of the past and was designed strictly for consumer use, leaving many to wonder how it even earned the title of drone in the first place. However, most people didn’t feel compelled to wonder for long, as the quadcopter helicopter could be manned by mobile device or tablet for smooth and easily controlled flight. The battery on this initial drone allowed for 12 minutes of flight time, during which users could interact with other drones in combat simulations or take part in solo games. The Parrot AR even came equipped with a 64-degree camera that had the capacity to record up to 60 fps.
Since the Parrot AR, other companies have followed suit, and now advanced consumer drones are being used for everything from drone racing to capturing live events, and from surveying dangerous areas to delivering small parcels. In fact, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced drone delivery in 2013, and in 2016, the company began its first publicly available trial of Amazon Prime Air.
Of course, it took a lot of work in the legal department to allow drones into the air for commercial. What started as just one FAA exemption—which were for a film and TV production companies—the association has since granted 24 exemptions, one of which is for package delivery and aerial photography.
Consumer drone use also has its regulations, which can be found on the FAA’s website and which all consumers should read in depth before flying. For drone users that want to fly in a way that regulations do not allow, there are drone leagues and drone races, which are growing in popularity and which are featured on ESPN.
Drones Have Come a Long Way, and They’re Bound to Go Even Farther
From unmanned balloons equipped with bombs to the Fritz X, and from The Predator to the Parrot AR, drones have come a long way in the past century and a half, and drone enthusiasts everywhere cannot wait to see what advancements are to come. Of course, drone history is much more detailed than what this brief overview covered, and a more detailed history would include advancements by various agencies at all phases of drone existence. This post, however, sums up the greatest achievements in drone history, and most enthusiasts anticipate the next advancement to make headlines soon enough.