The Fascinating History of Drones

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Drone: Any multicopter with 3–8 horizontal propellers that can fly without a pilot.

Drones have become so common now that it’s hard to remember a time without them. Personal drones, aka hobby drones, didn’t catch the public’s eye until the mid-2000s. The rest—as they say—is history, and that’s what this page looks at. Keep reading to learn the truth about drones. These flying robots go back a lot further than most folks realize, and it’s a fascinating story.

Let’s begin with a breakdown of historical facts, and then go into more details. Not all these crafts are drones as we know them. However, they are all remote controlled unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs. The history shows where they came from, what happened, and where we’re at today.

10 Historical Drone Facts

I’ve broken the history of drones down in this section, and it’s a real eye-opener. Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs at the consumer level are a more recent phenomenon. All technological advances had to start somewhere, though. Almost every famous invention we know about had humble beginnings. Many great ideas fall by the wayside without us hearing about them, but not hobby drones.

Here’s a quick breakdown on the history of our beloved drones:

  • 1907: The first quadcopter (4 rotor drone) took to the skies
  • 1917: Nikola Tesla created the first military pilotless RC aircraft
  • 1943: Saw the FX-1400 (nickname Fritz X) radio-controlled bomb
  • 1960s: First unmanned RC aircraft became available to consumers
  • 2001: The US began to fly hi-tech armed drones over Afghanistan
  • 2006: Personal drones started to take off—literally
  • 2010: Parrot introduced the first ready-to-fly (RTF) WiFi drone
  • 2013: Amazon introduces the concept of drone deliveries
  • 2015: A year know for the Lily Flying Camera disaster
  • 2016: DJI’s Phantom 4 set new standards for camera quads

That’s a quick breakdown of drone history through the ages. The rest of this piece looks at the above points in more detail. First, let’s take a brief look at radio control technology.

Radio Control (RC) Technology

Most of us give little thought to radio controlled (RC) devices. RC has become so commonplace that we expect it, but it wasn’t always like that. It began over 120 years ago in Madison Square Garden in September 1898. A Serbian-American inventor called Nikola Tesla revealed his exciting new invention to the world. It was a radio-controlled speedboat.

This boat was the first ever demonstration of wireless remote control, and from there RC was born.

Drone History 1917 to Present Day

Now we’re going to look at the ten milestones above in a little more detail. I have condensed the history of drones to make reading easy. These accounts give names, places, and details of products as they were at the time. Feel free to do further research if you want to dig deeper into any of these fascinating facts. A little knowledge certainly helps us to appreciate our modern flying robots.

#1 1907: The first quadcopter took to the skies

The most popular hobby drones today are four rotor quadcopters, and they’ve come a long way. Two French brothers, Jacques and Louis Bréguet, were ambitious inventors of their time. They introduced the first experimental quadcopter in 1907 called Gyroplane No. 1. It was a crude invention built for a single pilot. The machine had a 46 horsepower (HP) engine and weighed around 1274 lbs. (578 kg).

Gyroplane No. 1 flew only two feet off the ground for around a minute. How to control the craft was still unknown. It’s laughable now, but like all great inventions it was a start, and that’s the point.

#2 1917: The first military pilotless RC aircraft

A futurist called Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American mechanical engineer. He was also an electrical engineer and the inventor of radio control or RC technology. It was Tesla’s RC technology that controlled a model called the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target. It became the first functional unmanned winged aircraft in history. The idea was to use the Aerial Target as a flying bomb, deliverable by RC.

The military never used the Aerial Target in combat action. Even so, it opened the door for future innovations. An unmanned aerial torpedo named the Kettering Bug was one such project. Today’s highly-sophisticated military drones are a result of those early inventions.

#3 1943: The FX-1400 (aka Fritz X) RC bomb

The Germans invented—and used—the first RC aerial vehicle in combat during WWII. It was an anti-ship glide bomb they called the Fritz X (real name, FX-1400). The Fritz X became the first precision-guided weapon used in combat. It was also the first unmanned craft to sink a ship in warfare.

#4 1960s: The birth of consumer unmanned RC aircraft

By now, unmanned aircraft was no longer in its infancy. Flying models became popular with hobbyists during the 1960s. It was a time when advances in transistor technology saw the miniaturization of radio components. Flying RC planes via remote control became affordable at last. Most of these early crafts were in kit form. The ready-to-fly (RTF) drones were still some time away.

#5 2001: The birth of US hi-tech military armed drones

Few of us knew what a military drone looked like—let alone capable of—pre-9/11. The CIA started to fly hi-tech surveillance drones over Afghanistan from 2000. Its heavily armed combat drones took to the skies in late 2001. Drones used in military conflicts remain a controversial topic to this day.

#6 2006: Personal drones take off

Most of us knew what a hobby drone was by 2006, but not everyone had or wanted one. It was still a niche leisure pursuit, but that was about to change. As technology progressed, drones became more beginner-friendly with each new model. The real appeal kicked in when RC flying machines became flying cameras. The rapidly growing demand for public drones caught the authorities off-guard.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), began to create rules and regulations, do’s, and don’ts. In 2006, the FAA issued UAV pilots with the first commercial drone permits. Drones for recreational and commercial purposes had become—and continue to be—a concern for world governments. It’s why laws continue to evolve to meet the new challenges faced by these flying robots.

#7 2010: Parrot introduces first ever WiFi drone

It was in 2010 when the French tech company, Parrot, introduced its first WiFi drone. It was also a ready-to-fly (RTF) model. RTF drones are aircraft that users can unbox and fly right away. The company called it the Parrot AR Drone. It was unique because users could operate it using a regular smartphone as the controller. It became a huge success, and the AR Drone 2.0 was an even bigger hit.

#8 2013: Drones for deliveries

The commercial potential for drones had gained momentum in many industries by 2013. It was also the year that Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, revealed plans to exploit drones for retail delivery. It still hasn’t happened yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Amazon calls this future delivery system Prime Air. It’s Prime Air unmanned delivery drones may well see the demise of our postman.

#9 2015: Death of the Lily camera drone

There are successes and failures in all industries, including drones. The Lily Camera quad, though, is easily the biggest letdown in recent times. It was the drone in 2015 that got everyone so excited. This was to be the easiest one to fly at any level thanks to its throw-and-shoot potential. The pre-sales hype racked up pre-orders exceeding $34M. Sadly, the company went bankrupt before the launch.

The Lily camera drone was way ahead of its time. It had more appeal than ease of use and a compact design. The quad was waterproof, had obstacle avoidance sensors, and precise tracking capability. It was to be the ultimate selfie drone that anyone could fit into a bag and use at a moment’s notice. Lily has since attempted a comeback, but it’s no longer the wonder-drone everyone was talking about.

Why? Because most top drone makers have since caught up with the technology. All the big names now offer everything the 2015 Lily quad promised aside from full waterproofing.

#10 2016: DJI’s Phantom 4 sets golden standards

The drone market is competitive, overcrowded, and overwhelming for newbies. The giant DJI has established itself as a market leader. The DJI Phantom 4 delivered a lot of the technology promised by the failed Lily drone (see previous). It included obstacle avoidance and the intelligent tracking and filming of moving objects.

The DJI Phantom 4 set new standards and became the benchmark for other makers to strive for. And that brings us to the present day. Public drone technology gets more sophisticated yet more straightforward to use. Quadcopters continue to be the bird of choice for most fans. However, there’s still a niche market for other multi-rotor aircraft like hexacopters and octocopters.

Where Do Drones Go from Here?

So, we’ve seen the birth of radio-controlled flying machines through to present-day drones. The technology has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. And just when we think there’s nowhere else to go, the industry surprises us. It’s hard to predict the future, but what we do know is that the history of drones is still very much in the making.

Hobby drones will continue to get better and even more affordable. Battery life and extended range are areas drone makers want to improve, especially flight times. Shorter battery charging time is another. However, I think it’s the professional applications that will impress us the most. Drones that can lift heavy objects like people and animals in remote rescue missions is one example.

Highly sophisticated miniaturized spy drones are sure to be on the cards too. There’s also the chilling prospect for smaller, faster, lethal drones used for military use. Wherever we’re heading, it’s going to be exciting. It’s also scary, especially if the powerful drones of the future fall into the wrong hands.