A drone, in technological terms, is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASes). Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems, working in conjunction with onboard sensors and GPS.
In the recent past, UAVs were most often associated with the military, where they were used initially for anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence gathering and then, more controversially, as weapons platforms. Drones are now also used in a wide range of civilian roles ranging from search and rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather monitoring and firefighting, to personal drones and business drone-based photography, as well as videography, agriculture and even delivery services.
The history of drones
Many trace the history of drones to 1849 Italy, when Venice was fighting for its independence from Austria. Austrian soldiers attacked Venice with hot-air, hydrogen- or helium-filled balloons equipped with bombs.
The first pilotless radio-controlled aircraft were used in World War I. In 1918, the U.S. Army developed the experimental Kettering Bug, an unmanned “flying bomb” aircraft, which was never used in combat.
The first generally used drone appeared in 1935 as a full-size retooling of the de Havilland DH82B “Queen Bee” biplane, which was fitted with a radio and servo-operated controls in the back seat. The plane could be conventionally piloted from the front seat, but generally it flew unmanned and was shot at by artillery gunners in training. The term drone dates to this initial use, a play on the “Queen Bee” nomenclature.
UAV technology continued to be of interest to the military, but it was often too unreliable and costly to put into use. After concerns about the shooting down of spy planes arose, the military revisited the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles. Military use of drones soon expanded to play roles in dropping leaflets and acting as spying decoys.
Military drone use solidified in 1982 when the Israeli Air Force used UAVs to wipe out the Syrian fleet with minimal loss of Israeli forces. The Israeli UAVs acted as decoys, jammed communication and offered real-time video reconnaissance.
Drones have continued to be a mainstay in the military, playing critical roles in intelligence, surveillance and force protection, artillery spotting, target following and acquisition, battle damage assessment and reconnaissance, as well as for weaponry.
Modern drone history
A Wall Street Journal report claims widespread drone use began in 2006 when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency introduced UAVs to monitor the the U.S. and Mexico border.
In late 2012, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, retired to dedicate himself to his drones company, 3D Robotics, Inc. (3DR). The company, which started off specializing in hobbyist personal drones, now markets its UAVs to aerial photography and film companies, construction, utilities and telecom businesses, and public safety companies, among others.
In late 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a plan to use commercial drones for delivery activities. However, in July 2016, Reno-based startup Flirtey beat Amazon to the punch, successfully delivering a package to a resident in Nevada via a commercial drone. Other companies have since followed suit. For example, in September 2016, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University began a test with Project Wing, a unit of Google owner Alphabet, Inc., to make deliveries, starting with burritos produced at a local Chipotle restaurant. Then in December 2016, Amazon delivered its first Prime Air package in Cambridge, England. In March of 2017, it demonstrated a Prime Air drone delivery in California.