Drones: a history of flying robots

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In the 20th Century, military research precipitated many widely used technological innovations. Surveillance satellites enabled the GPS-system, and defence researchers developed the information swapping protocols that are fundamental to the Internet. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) fall into a similar category. Designed initially for reconnaissance purposes, their para-military and commercial development was often out of sight of the public.

As the technology becomes more advanced and costs fall, civilian day-today uses of UAVs are developing rapidly. At the same time, military drone activity has caused public outcry; Obama has approved more drone attacks than any other US President. The potential for photo journalism from the air rather than a long lens also raises concerns about privacy.

Military UAVs - from the Civil War to the Middle East conflicts

The Oxford English Dictionary describes drones as 'a remote-less controlled piloted aircraft or missile'. Understood in such sense, drones came into first use after World War II when unmanned jets, such as the Ryan Firebee (a documentary about the Firebee and the use of early drones in the Vietnam War), started field operation.

Since then, the number of drones in military use increased substantially enough that the New York Time decided to refer to it as a new paradigm for warfare.

But the story of military drones or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) is probably as long as the history of aircrafts. Military leaders always dreamed of reaching their enemies from distance, especially when there was a real opportunity (e.g. from a drone airport in Wales or a comfy control centre) of avoiding human casualties. As might been expected, the US military sector led in these types of engagements and was the first to apply the idea of aerial military surveillance (as far as in during the Civil War), but other countries are also following.

Interestingly, even before the Wright brothers taught the fledgling aviation world the secrets of controlled flight, also other attempts of unmanned combat vehicles existed - an interesting example are balloons, which were used with various results by the Austrian army in an attack on Venice in 1849 and the Japanese forces in the Fu-go bombings in 1945.

As drones play an increasing role in the current discussion on politics and international relations, the Huffington Post and the Guardian have special columns dedicated to 'drones' news.

Civilian UAVs - a promise for public application of unmanned aircrafts?

The public perception of most of the UAV applications is still mainly associated with military use, but many seem to forget that one of the founding fathers of the idea of remotely controlled vehicles was the genial civil inventor - Nicola Tesla. In fact, Tesla was the first to patent a remote-control for unmanned vehicles (which he described as 'teleautomation'), becoming one of the foundational principles for today's UAV's.

However, when speaking about UAVs dedicated for civil use, it is important to distinguish between the large, civil vehicles that might one day carry passengers without onboard human supervision, regular UAVs of similar size as those used in the military and much smaller systems, including increasingly popular quadcopters.

Bringing to an end an almost 90-years old tradition of planes piloted by humans; or introducing quadcopters patrolling city streets would be a big step forward. Fair to say, this would be a complex and publicly sensitive topic challenging many technological, legislative and social prejudices. For that reason, the UK alone established a number of organizations including e.g. ASTREA, CAA or UAVS, which are designed to bring together main industrial, regulatory and civil stakeholders to potentially guide similar processes in the future.

An informative piece of reading on this issue - When Will We Have Unmanned Commercial Airlines? - has been published last year by the IEEE Spectrum group.

For regular size UAVs some of the most popular emerging applications include conservations and wildlife measurement or agriculture and aerial photography .

The smaller drones e.g. quadcopters, became popular in part after the presentation by prof. Vijar Kumar at TED (video below) and following outputs from the cutting-edge research being done in the labs at the University of Pennsylvania and ETH Zurich (which also often upload interesting video materials).

DIYdrones - a toy, a useful support system or a tool for unregulated surveillance?

On another end of the spectrum of the 'drone discussion' are machines which are considered to be man-portable and relatively affordable, e.g. radio-controlled (RC) planes or simple, small UAVs (sUAV).

Their size and portability becomes an appealing feature for police forces and fire services to study whether their adoption might be feasible for their own aerial surveillance purposes. The technology itself has proven to be used in diverse capacities, often from an unexpected angle (as this video shot of Warsaw riots shows).

The use of small UAVs by other than regulated entities raises questions of privacy and physical safety. After all, one of the most popular commercial sUAVs, the AR.Drone is said to be sold in more than 300 000 units and examples of irresponsible and underhand use are not isolated. An article in the Atlantic articulates some of those fears in posing a question of how would we feel if a neighbor flew an UAV into our garden?

Another interesting angle of sUAVs are their citizen-led application. Some claim that sUAVs might change the future of journalism while others, that they might bring cultural joy as they are increasingly being used in e.g. festival settings (e.g. the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Vienna).

More about the DIYdrones community can be read at their website.