history of drones

History of Drones

Aerial technology, particularly of the handheld variety, has taken a huge leap forward the past few years. After going through a colossal evolution process, it has developed into a valuable innovation that’s used across different industries, such as photography, agriculture, video surveillance, and even national defense.

However, before it became the big-time invention we know today, it too started out as a hunk of junk; but thanks to several transcendent minds and a few things lucky breaks along the way, their vision finally became a reality.

In this article, I would like to take time and pay tribute to all their contributions to society. This story will take us back all the way to the late 1840s, as we go through who invented the drone, when exactly it was invented, and why it was conceptualized in the first place?

If you’re interested in learning more, I invite you to read on as we talk about the history of drones.

The Early Days

The first known variation of drones was used way back in 1849 during the First World War. Austria, which was a rapidly developing country at that time, used balloons filled with bombs to attack Venice – without any pilot controlling them. This tactic was primarily used to inflict damage on the enemy, without sacrificing your own life.

Although these look and work differently from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) we know today, this experience paved the way for newer prototypes to be created. This, after all, was only the beginning.

When Real Drones Were Invented

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, drones are defined as “an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by a remote control or onboard computer”. Following this description that we use today, the first real model was introduced to the world in 1918 by the US government.

One thing we need to understand was there was so much chaos during this era since virtually everyone was at war. Countries, particularly the Super Powers of the globe, were thinking of new ways to militarize your own forces. The goal here, of course, was to eradicate the adversary, while minimizing casualties on your side. At that time, the United States was considered one of the major players and they needed to remain steadfast in their position. Therefore, UAVs were viewed as a viable solution to achieve this goal.

This eventually led to the birth of the Kettering Bug, which was ultimately conceptualized by Elmer Ambrose Sperry, the proponent of the gyroscope.

Kettering Bug

Kettering Aerial Torpedo "Bug"

Widely considered as the chief blueprint for models we know today, the KB looked a lot like a propeller plane but was used as torpedoes with stabilizing controls. Although it was never able to see the battlefield, reports stated that it was quite promising and highly successful during trials runs. It utilized a remote control, which operated through its own radio frequency, to effectually navigate it as it glided through the air.

Of course, this was far from a perfect design and still had its own kinks. However, it did set a solid foundation that other developers built on.

Spread Of This Technology

After the Americans found great success with this technological advancement, other countries instantly followed suit. The first ones who did were the British, who came up with their own archetype. This is one of the most important part of the history of drones.

In 1927, the Royal Navy manufactured a prototype called the Larynx, which is a monoplane that could be controlled from over 100 miles away. This was later developed into the Fairey Queen in 1928 and the DH.82B Queen Bee in 1931. All these were coordinated using a much strong radio connection and armed with cutting-edge UAV machinery.

Likewise, the Americans joined in on the act by producing a drone type of their own called the Curtiss N2C-2 in 1941, which was similar to the archetype the Brits came up with. Eventually, this was upgraded to the Radioplane OQ-2, the first mass-produced drone in history, and the Teledyne Ryan Firebee. The later was the first variation that used a jet engine so it could reach further distances within a limited amount of time.

Curtiss N2C-2 in 1941

Curtiss N2C-2

While these devices were predominantly used as training dummies during this era, they were also slowly being introduced into warfare. Engineers added provisions for artillery, stronger engines, and more durable frames to withstand the rigors of combat. As people’s knowledge of this invention grew, so did the heights that it reached – both literally and figuratively.

The Vietnam War

Up until the early 1950s, drones were widely seen as a luxury since they cost so much money to produce. This risk made a lot of countries think twice about investing in this type of technology. The US, being a 1st world group of states with vast resources, still decided to pursue and further develop UAVs as a type of weapon. Their research essentially paid off when the Vietnamese War broke out in 1955.

Vietnam, being in the heart of Southeast Asia, was a long way from home. High-ranking American officials were worried that if they didn’t allocate assets properly – which included food, firearms, and yes, soldiers – they would lose the war before it even began. This was a perfect scenario to utilize unmanned aircrafts because it would greatly lessen the number of human casualties. Dropping explosive from above, without jeopardizing their own fleet, was also a plan of attack they kept in their back pocket.

Eventually, this tactic worked and the rest of the world saw just how powerful this type of machine could be. Since that time, more and more nations gradually opened up to this idea and produced variations of their own.

One of the first to take this leap, other than the two countries we mentioned above, was Israel, who enhanced the surveillance system on these drones. This allowed them to monitor the UAV’s whereabouts and monitor exactly what it is seeing in real-time. The Israelis even developed stealth settings and introduced the concept tailless capabilities, which only made these smaller in size and harder to detect.   

After this decade, the innovations presented by people only added fire to this already global trend. However, the uses of drones were no longer limited to this war. As humans learned more about it, they applied this same equipment to other niches as well.

UAVs Today

What it is at present is very different from what it used to be 60 years ago. For one, drones are no longer as large as their original prototypes. The models sold for commercial use are a lot more compact and can even be as small as your palm. These can also be flown in residential areas, with proper restrictions of course, without causing much panic in people.

drones today

Furthermore, from something that brought much pain and suffering to those before us, drone technology is now a staple in many households worldwide and possesses a wide range of useful everyday functions. Nowadays, they’re utilized for capturing picturesque views on video, spreading fertilizer across an immense field, transporting equipment through dangerous territories, surveillance, and even security purposes, just to name a few. Some users even race these around for sport!

Finally, the price to acquire one for your own has significantly dropped. In the past, UAVs were an extravagance only the richest nations in the world can afford, but right now you can get one for as low as $25 online. This is a far cry from the thousands of dollars spent just to produce one!

Needless to say, drone technology has come a long way these last few decades. As regular consumers let us just learn to appreciate what it brings and add on to this legacy of excellence. Who knows – in a few years’ time, we could be adding our own spin to how these are used.


After running through the history of drones, who invented them, and when it was first created, I can say that I have a deeper admiration for it and the journey it had gone through. Knowing how something came to be teaches us never to take it for granted and continue to value what it provides.

If you’re interested in learning more other practical uses of drones in business, please do click on this link and watch the short video.

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