When one thinks of drones, it’s most likely that they envision the tiny helicopter-esque commercial product that their teenage neighbor keeps crashing into their yard. Drones are much more powerful than this, however, and are considered one of the first forays into unmanned air vehicles. They’re used to gather wartime intelligence, and to capture aerial shots for real estate agents – a huge difference in use of the technology.
How did the drone become such a prominent commercial product? Where did the concept come from? And how has the drone market come to be worth nearly $10 billion? Here, I’ll dive into a brief history of drones and explore all of their uses and technological advances with a timeline that might surprise you.
There is a bit of debate on when the first drone was created. By looking at the Oxford Dictionary, drones are described as, “a remote-less controlled piloted aircraft or missile.” As reported by Nesta.org, if used in this sense, the first use of drones were in World War II for military action.
However, a few other types of drone concepts were created first, a bit different from the drones recognized as military or commercial products. These early version of drones looked more like balloons.
In 1782, nearly 250 years ago, the first unmanned balloons were used by the Montgolfier brothers of France. In 1806, kites were used to scatter propaganda over parts of France. 1848 saw Austria using two hundred pilotless balloons with bombs attached to them during an attack in Venice. And thus, extreme military use of unmanned crafts took flight.
As the need for strategic military advances increased, leaders looked to drone technology to capitalize on impeding wartime. Enter Nikola Tesla, an innovative and technological developer, who debuted his first radio frequency activated craft in 1898. From here, drone technology reached new heights as engineers developed more sophisticated designs and capabilities aimed at becoming every military’s prime resource for striking opponents in tense wartime climates.
As mentioned above, World War II was the first time that drones were used en masse. With the new drone technology, leaders had the ability to hit the opposition from afar, instead of solely fighting with hand to hand combat. World War II also brought surveillance drones into play, gathering intelligence on enemy positions and strategies.
From here, drones became a critical and routinely used piece of military equipment, with some surveillance drones in constant use as both a defensive security measure and to gain intelligence.
As technology advances, materials to build drones become lighter and operations more capable. Between the 1980’s and 2010, drones started to take on a different shape. While still being used heavily in military regimes – with a high increase after the attacks of 9/11 – smaller and more surveillance oriented began to rise. Stronger cameras are built into the interfaces, and opportunities for commercial use started to shape.
In 2010, the first smartphone-controlled quadcopter for consumers was debuted in Las Vegas at a Consumer Electronics Show. Shortly after, mega-mogul Amazon announced that they be using small, copter-like drones as part of their premier delivery service, PrimeAir, in which drones would carry packages containing products ordered online through Amazon to the doorstep of the buyer.
Although revolutionary, the Amazon deal presented an interesting problem: were small drones allowed by law to be flown in any airspace? The answer to that question was no, however, the FAA was soon required by congress to begin allowing small drones in national airspace – and quickly. In order to do this, commercial drone laws had to be put into place, and with these laws, a lot of rules were created. For instance, no drone can weigh over 55 lbs or fly higher than 500 ft. Small restrictions such as these were put into place to drown any security fears and to keep civilians safe.
Amazon wasn’t the only one to break into the compact drone market after 2010. With the introduction of new airwave clearances, doors were opened for commercial drones with similar capabilities. The technology moved to the toy market and was soon picked up by real estate agencies, property managers, and news outlets as a new way to capture the bird’s eye view of life on the ground.
It’s hard to say where drones will go from here. Some worry that commercial drones can easily turn sinister in use, with nosy neighbors being able to spy on others, or at least cause annoyances, and that put in the wrong hands, can be used as a weapon. Even with these concerns, commercial drones continue to be extremely popular, with nearly all uses being innocently centered around taking pictures from new heights and fulfilling youngsters’ dreams of operating a flying vehicle from the ground. Meanwhile, military operations continue to use drones in fatal ways when necessary. The juxtaposition of the development of this technology is very unique. If anything, however, it’s certainly a sign that the robotics industry is a very powerful one not to be ignored.