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The History Of Drone Technology

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are pilotless and non-crewed aircraft that are capable of flight either by remote control or through the use of on-board computers. Other names for these types of aircraft are remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), and remotely operated aircraft (ROA).

Drones are commonly used by the military, but are also being implemented in search and rescue operations and being utilized in other civil applications, such as policing and firefighting. The technology is also allowing for hobbyists and other enthusiasts to become avid drone operators, albeit on a relatively smaller scale.

A drone is capable of controlled, sustained level flight and is powered by a jet, reciprocating, or electric engine. UAVs differ from cruise missiles in that drones are recovered after a mission is complete while a cruise missile impacts its target. Military UAVs may carry and fire munitions, while a cruise missile is a munition.

The concept of unmanned aerial flight is not a new one. The idea first came to light on August 22, 1849, when Austria attacked the Italian city of Venice with unmanned balloons that were loaded with explosives. Some balloons were launched from the Austrian ship Vulcano. While some balloons reached their intended targets, most were caught in change winds and were blown back over Austrian lines.

The system was under development for months and an account of the country’s plan appeared in an article in a Vienna newspaper at the time:

“Venice is to be bombarded by balloons, as the lagunes prevent the approaching of artillery. Five balloons, each twenty-three feet in diameter, are in construction at Treviso. In a favorable wind the balloons will be launched and directed as near to Venice as possible, and on their being brought to vertical positions over the town, they will be fired by electro magnetism by means of a long isolated copper wire with a large galvanic battery placed on a building. The bomb falls perpendicularly, and explodes on reaching the ground.”

While these early drones do not generally meet today’s definition of a UAV, the concept was strong enough that once winged aircraft had been invented, the concept was still alive and kicking and would soon be implemented once again.

WORLD WAR I

The first pilotless aircraft were developed during and shortly after World War I. The first was the “Aerial Target,” developed in 1916. It was intended to take down Zeppelins, but never flew. Shortly later, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane (the flying bomb) made its maiden flight, demonstrating the concept of unmanned aircraft. This UAV was intended for use as an aerial torpedo, an early version of modern cruise missiles. Control of these aircraft was achieved using gyroscopes.

In November 1917, the Automatic Airplane was demonstrated for the US Army. Upon the success of this demonstration, the Army commissioned a project to build an aerial torpedo, which became known as the Kettering Bug and flew in 1918. While the technology was a success, it wasn’t in time to fight during wartime, which ended before the UAV could be developed and deployed.

Several successors were developed during the period after WWI and prior to WWII. These included the Larynx, tested by the Royal Navy between 1927 and 1929; the radio-controlled Fairey “Queen” developed by the British in 1931; and the British follow-up UAV “DH.82B Queen Bee” in 1935. Also following on the earlier work by the Army, the US Navy continued to advance UAV technology, experimenting with radio-controlled aircraft. In 1936, the term “drone” was first coined, as the head of the Navy’s research group used it to describe radio-controlled aerial targets.

During the technology rush of WWII, drones were used both as training tools for antiaircraft gunners and for aerial attack missions. Nazi Germany also had produced and used various UAVs during the course of WWII. After the war, jet engines were applied to drones, with the first being the Teledyne Ryan Firebee I of 1951. By 1955, the Model 1001, developed by Beechcraft, was developed for the US Navy — these UAVs were nothing more than remote-controlled airplanes until the Vietnam Era.

MODERN ERA

The birth of US UAVs began in 1959 when the US Air Force, concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory, began planning for unmanned flights. Following a Soviet Union shoot down of the secret “U-2” aircraft in 1960, the highly classified UAV program was launched under the code name “Red Wagon.” Modern-era UAVs got their first use during the Aug 2 and Aug 4, 1964 clash in the Tonkin Gulf between the US and North Vietnamese navies. During the Vietnam War.

After Chinese photographs surfaced of downed US unmanned aircraft during and after the Vietnam War, the official US Air Force response was “no comment.” However, by 1973, the US military officially confirmed that they had been utilizing UAV technology is Vietnam, stating that during the war, more than 3,435 UAV missions were flown, of which about 554 were lost in combat.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel developed the first UAV with real-time surveillance, after Soviet Union surface-to-air missiles used by Egypt and Syria dealt heavy damage to Israel’s fighter jets. The images and radar decoying provided by these UAVs helped Israel to neutralize Syria’s air defenses at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War, resulting in no pilots lost. By 1987, Israel had developed proof-of-concept capabilities in tailless, stealth-based, three-dimensional thrust vectoring flight control, jet steering UAVs for the first time.

Interest in UAV technology grew during the 1980s and 1990s – being used during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 – and became cheaper and more capable fighting machines. While most drones of the earlier years were primarily surveillance aircrafts, some carried munitions. The General Atomics MQ-1, which utilized an AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile, was known as an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).

POST 9/11

While most UAVs were utilized by the military, the technology was commissioned by the CIA after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Intelligence gathering operations began in 2004, with CIA-operated UAVs primarily flown over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The CIA’s first UAV program was called the Eagle Program.

As of 2008, The USAF has employed 5,331 UAVs, which is twice the number of manned planes. Of these, the Predators have been the most commendable. Unlike other UAVs, the Predator was armed with Hellfire missiles. The Predators were used during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and have demonstrated the capability of pointing lasers at targets for pinpoint accuracy. The overall success of the Predator missions is apparent because from June 2005 to June 2006 alone, Predators carried out 2,073 successful missions in 242 separate raids.

While Predator is remotely operated via satellites from more than 7,500 miles away, the Global Hawk operates virtually autonomously. Once the user pushes a button, alerting the UAV to take off, the only interaction between ground and the UAV is directional instructions via GPS. Global Hawks have the ability to take off from San Francisco, fly across the US, and map out the entire state of Maine before having to return.

In February 2013, it was reported that UAVs were used by at least 50 countries, several of which have made their own, including Iran, Israel and China.

Recently, UAVs are becoming increasingly popular in the commercial and private market. Amazon.com, the largest online retailer, said in December 2013 that it was developing drone technology to one day deliver mail autonomously.

Drones are also being developed for hobbyists and other enthusiasts. In reality, these types of aircraft have been common since the 1930s, when Reginald Denny mass-produced the first radio-controlled aircraft for the hobby market. While RC airplanes remained popular through the decades, recent technology is now making them smaller, more powerful and more useful – some adding cameras and GPS trackers, as well as making them more affordable for everyday enthusiasts.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

The History Of Drone Technology


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