Who Invented Drones? A Short History of UAVs

Last updated November 8th, 2019
Old portrait photos

Drones have been called one of the greatest technological inventions of the modern day..but that would make them seem like a recent invention.

The truth is that the history of drones goes far back in time to a less technological period: the mid-nineteenth century.

Who Invented Drones?

The first use of drones in recorded history occurred in July of 1849. It was a time of war, and Austria decided to get creative in their assault on Venice.

In what would mark the first offensive use of air power in naval aviation, the Austrian army used a balloon carrier in an aerial attack on the seaside city.

They launched about 200 incendiary balloons on that day, and at least one successfully landed and exploded in Venice.

Each balloon carried a payload; a 24-30 pound bomb that was to be dropped by a time fuse once they were over the city.

It was a terrifying eye-opener to what could be achieved from the air in battle.

Unfortunately for the Austrians (or fortunately for the Venetians), their technology was sketchy and the prevailing winds threw a spanner in their works.

Sea breezes swept most of the aerial bombs far away from their targets — some of them were even swept back onto the Austrian navy.

And thus, marked the debut of unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs.

If you accept that a ‘drone’ is simply an unmanned vehicle then July 1849 marks the true drone debut.

Some people insist on defining drones as remote-controlled aerial devices like the modern devices that line our skies today. We’d agree with that definition, to be honest, especially as electricity (as we know it) wasn’t even invented when Austria concocted their balloon bombs — Edison only invented the lightbulb 30 years after this took place.

It was a fiasco.

No other army thought of taking to the skies like this for fear of bombing their own lines.

Nikola Tesla Demonstrating “Teleautomation” (1898)

On a rainy summer day in 1898, Nikola Tesla demonstrated the “Teleautomaton” to an astonished crowd at Madison Square Garden’s first Electrical Exhibition.

It was the first ever radio controlled device in the form of a miniature boat. There were actually two devices: one that could be controlled remotely above water, and another with a hidden loop antenna which could be controlled under water.

He kept the core technology hidden at the time to prevent them from being stolen — a problem he struggled with all his life.

But he later revealed that it consisted of a method for encoding and decoding wave frequencies directly from within the device. His devices required a system within them that was capable of toggling actions based on different signals.

Today, we know this as a logic gate, and this forms the basis for a host of industries and inventions that feed the UAV industry today.

These include: the modern computer, robotics, radio, wireless connections, and of course, remote controlled vehicles and weapons also known as drones.

The Wright Brothers and the First Flight (1903)

Two years prior to Tesla’s 1898 unveiling of the teleautomaton, two brothers, bicycle repairers, had begun studying everything they knew about flying machines.

They were Orville and Wilbur Wright.

By 1902, after having read up all the knowledge that was available on the subject of aeronautics and applying them, they were ready to test their first glider.

They took their glider to their favorite testing ground, Kitty Hawk Beach. It was there that over the years they had been able to safely test all their ideas, failing dramatically and adding to their knowledge each time.

But that windy day in 1902 proved a turning point.

Their glider not only worked that time around, but they were able to make more than 700 more successful flights.

Having perfected glided flight, they turned their pursuits towards powered flight.

No automobile manufacturer could supply an engine that was light enough and powerful enough for what they had in mind, so Orville and Wilbur decided to design and build their own.

It would take over a year of hard work, experimentation, and innovation for everything to come together just as they needed.

And then finally on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright became the first man to pilot a powered airplane. The first flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet.

Three more flights were performed that day, with Wilbur piloting the record flight which lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet.

In anticipation of this momentous event, the Wright Brothers had notified several newspapers. However, only one — their local newspaper — bothered mentioning it.

It is indeed fitting that the two pillar-technologies that would lead to the drone technology which we enjoy today were developed at the very same time.

In hindsight, they seem like a match made in heaven.

The First Military Drones

A mere 13 years after the Wright Brothers took off into the air and into history with the first powered flight; Great Britain produced the first pilotless winged aircraft: the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target.

The manufacturers based their design on Tesla’s work — that’s Teleautomation Tesla, not Elon Musk’s Tesla — and the device was controlled with radio waves just like the drones of today, although the technology was much simpler.

The Aerial Target was basically a flying bomb that England built to counter the German Zepellins, even though it was believed by those who built it that it could be used against ground targets as well.

However, following several failed prototype launches, the British military decided to scrap the project.

They didn’t believe that pilotless aerial vehicles had military potential.

The Americans thought otherwise and unveiled their own version just a year later: the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. After an impressive test run before representatives of the US Army, an upgraded, mass-producible version was commissioned, named the Kettering Bug.

At the time, 1918, the Kettering Bug was a technological marvel. But it was developed too late to be deployed in the closing stages of the First World War.

The First RC Drones

By the 1930s the US Navy began experimenting with radio-controlled aircrafts. These efforts led to the creation of the Curtiss N2C-2 Drone in 1937.

At the same time, the interest in remote-controlled drones was heating up across the Atlantic and the British produced “Queen Bee”, the radio-controlled target which their military went on to use for target practice.

“Queen Bee” is credited for the adoption of the word drone to designate unmanned aircrafts that are specifically radio-controlled.

By the time the Second World War rolled around the technology available was just right for remote-controlled aircraft to be mass-produced.

Edward M. Sorenson is credited with inventing a radio-controlled aircraft that could fly out of sight. He patented his invention, which was a device capable of knowing what the drone was doing from a ground terminal, even when the drone was out of sight.

And by the early parts of the Second World War, Radioplane OQ-2 developed by Reginald Denny became the first mass produced remote controlled UAV product. Nearly 15,000 of these Radioplane OQ-2 units were produced for the US Army during the Great War.

RC Planes Mass Market

Breakthroughs in transistor technology in the 1960s, paved the way for miniaturized radio-controlled components. These were readily available to the public at affordable prices; leading to a popularity boom for RC planes in the US.

RC plane models during this period usually came in toy form, offering various models ranging from indoor flyable versions to much larger outdoor models.

The First Military Drone Strikes

The use of drones in military combat during The Second World War and the Cold War is well documented. However, well into the 80s, they were perceived as largely unreliable and expensive.

It was not until 1982 that the Israel Army showed the potential of drones for warfare in a coordinated, astonishing display that left the Syrian fleet in tatters, all with minimal losses.

But even then the Israel army used drones to recon the enemy’s position, jam communications, and act as decoys to prevent the loss of pilot life.

While this display increased the profile of drones as weapons of war (for example, the US spent tens of millions of dollars in drone contracts), there were no drone strikes involved.

The first drone strikes actually took place in the aftermath of 9/11 when the CIA deployed drones over Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban.

The first drone-based kill occurred in 2002, and was carried out by a Predator drone targeting someone suspected to be Osama bin Laden.

Unfortunately, the target turned out to be an innocent man who was out collecting scrap metal. Concerns about using drones in warfare remain till this day.

The First GPS Drones

Before the rise of commercial drones, most UAVs did not have GPS modules built in. Pilots operated them by remote control and this took a level of skill.

This is no longer the case today as most drones have a GPS built in to enable smart control features to ease control.

For example, GPS restricts drones from exceeding 400 feet in height, keeping them out of danger along aerial routes. Options such as the “Hold Position” and “Return to Home”, as well as “Autonomous Flight” are all GPS-assisted.

Many experts trace the rise of these non-military, consumer-friendly GPS devices to 2006 when the FAA issued the first drone permits. This is a pivotal moment in the history of drones.

Not only did this remove some of the restrictions on recreational flying, it also opened the door to many of the innovative uses for drones that we see around us today.

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