The surprising history of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs and drone history)

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Drones and unmanned aircraft that we use today may look harmless and fun. We fly them to take beautiful pictures and videos and to indulge in our hobby of flying something in the sky. 

However, not many of us actually care to know the history of drones. How did drones evolve? What is the history of drones like?

Drones were originally developed for warfare, to carry explosives to the enemy. Drones have become larger, faster, and deadlier over the years. However, cameras, sensors, and the internet also found their way into drones. This makes drones useful for civilians as well.


In this article, we dive deep into history and present to you the complete history of drones. We start from the era of hot air balloons to the modern DJI drones you see in stores today. We also look at what future drones will be like.

What Is A Drone, UAV?

Before we look into the history of unmanned aerial vehicles and drones, let’s first look at what a drone actually is. It is much more than the DJI consumer drone you have in hand. 

‘Drone’ is a more casual term for an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). A drone or a UAV is a flying vehicle that does not carry anyone. It is often controlled remotely. 

Drones come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some small drones are small enough to fit into your palm. There are also massive drones that weights as much as 25 tonnes, such as the Ravn X

Depending on their use, drones may be equipped with cameras, sensors, or other technology. Modern drones also rely on the internet to deliver real-time information to the controller. 

Drones can be operated in several ways. The most basic drones usually use remote control with radio technology. Higher-end drones may use artificial intelligence (AI) to operate. High-performance drones can also operate without the controller not seeing them. 

Although originally developed for warfare use, drones have become more widespread in use. This is due to its versatility and low costs. Drones are commonly used in construction, journalism, filmmaking, agriculture, etc. Drones also aid in emergency response situations, such as disaster relief.

Despite their popularity, drones are also causing issues, particularly in civilian use. One major concern is privacy since drones can be flown into private places. That is why there are strict rules, regulations and licences set up by government bodies like the FAA

Drones are also known to have caused safety hazards. People have flown drones over highways, airports, or places with many people. Terrorists also have launched attacks using small drones.

When Was The First Drone Invented? The first use of Drones

When you look at the meaning of a UAV, it essentially points to three major characteristics:

  • It flies.
  • It does not carry any persons onboard
  • It is often controlled from the ground.
  • It performs a function. Traditionally for the military, but now civilian as well.

If we can go back into history, we may be able to point out that the first use of a drone/UAV was in 1849. That year, the Austrian Empire besieged the city of Venice.

Here is a rundown on all of the important times in drone development:

YearAdvancement / EventExample / Details
1849First use of drone-like devicesAustrian Empire used hot air balloons with explosives to attack the city of Venice.
1917First military drones, radio-controlledBritish ATs (Aerial Targets), American Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane.
1918Development of a suicide droneAmerican Kettering Bug, designed to fly up to 40 miles and then dive into the ground.
Late 1920sBritish suicide droneLarynx (Long Range Gun With Lynx Engine).
1931First use of the term “drone”British DH.82B ‘Queen Bee’ UAVs.
1936Drone term used in the USThe word “drone” used to describe all radio-controlled target aircraft.
World War IIFirst mass-produced droneAmerican Radioplane OQ-2, used for target practice.
1941Camera and television-equipped dronesUS Navy’s Project Fox, using Curtiss N2C-2 drone and TG-2 controller plane.
Cold War EraFaster, more powerful dronesAQM-35 by Northrop, powered by General Electric’s J85 jet engine.
Cold War EraData collection and reconnaissanceB-17 Flying Fortress converted for Operation Crosswords, Ryan Model 147 ‘Lightning Bug.’
1982Drones assisting fighter pilots in combatIsraeli Air Force used drones as electronic decoys and signal jammers during an attack on Syria.

The Austrians loaded a bunch of hot air balloons with explosives. Then they connected them together with a delayed time fuse.

They heat the balloons, get them to fly high, light up the fuse, and release it toward the Venetians. The explosives drop onto the Venetians when the delayed time fuse burns out.

The idea is ingenious, although, in reality, the strategy did not work well. A sudden wind change resulted in the hot air balloon being blown off course. Many of these balloons dropped their explosives on the wrong spot. 

In fact, some actually flew back to the Austrians and bombed their own soldiers.

Drones In World War I – First Military Drones – Surveillance?

Many military commanders became interested in air bombardment and UAVs. This resulted in the further development of the concept. 

The Wright brothers built and took the first airplane into the air in 1903. Their achievement opened all sorts of possibilities for drones. During World War I, drone technology further developed and improved.

Radio Controlled Pilotless Aircraft

The first major improvement in drone technology is in controls. The British wondered if they could use radio technology to control their drones. They turned to Archibald Low, one of Britain’s best radio technology experts, to start the work. 

Eventually, a slew of British drone weapons started production in 1917. These drones carry the name ATs (Aerial Targets). These drones were designed to fly from the ground. They then close in on the German Zeppelins (hot air balloons) to shoot them down. 

The Americans developed their own version of the UAV, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. The Hewitt-Sperry drone first took off in September 1917. It was the creation of Elmer Sperry and Peter Cooper Hewitt. 

The drone functions like an aerial torpedo. It takes off from the land, sea, or catapult, flies a set course, and then drops its load of explosives. 

Grandfather Of Cruise Missiles

Another concept in drones at the period is to carry explosives. Since it does not carry a person, the drone could function like a suicide drone. 

The Americans were at the forefront of this, developing the Kettering Bug in 1918. It was built to fly up to 40 miles (64 km). Once it arrives at the target location, the engine shuts off, and the wings fall out from the fuselage.

The fuselage then begins falling into the ground like a missile. The drone uses cheap materials such as wood laminate, papier mache, and cardboard. 

Drones During The Interwar Years – Drone, UAVs technology

Research and development of drones became less important in the interwar years. Most countries are in economic recessions and face major social issues. Some major improvements were still made. As a result, drones have become more refined. 

Further Refinement Of UAV Technology

Britain and the United States actively improve their drones during this period. Both worked on improving accuracy, navigation, and endurance. Some also integrated new technology into their drones.

Britain developed its own version of a suicide drone, like the Kettering Bug. The British called it the Larynx, which was test flown by the Royal Navy in the late 1920s. The Larynx stands for Long Range Gun With Lynx Engine.

There was also further refinement in radio control technology. This allows drones to fly further. The British developed the Fairey Queen in 1931. It was launchable from the ground or water. 

Britain also launched several other drones. These include the Airspeed Queen Wasp and the Miles Queen Martinet.

First Use Of The Term Drone

During this time, the word drone was used to describe UAVs. It started when the British launched UAVs from the Fairey Queen series in 1931. Included in the series were three DH.82B ‘Queen Bee’ UAVs. 

Most historians agree that this was where the term drones came about. The controller becomes the queen bee, controlling the UAV. The UAV then functions like a drone, working as the controller directs.

In the US, the word Drone was also used to describe all radio-controlled target aircraft beginning 1936.

Drones In World War II

Aviation played a much more important role during World War II. This means drones have also become more common with the nations in combat. 

Some aviation technologies developed during this time also found their way into drones. For example, jet propulsion.

First Mass-Produced Drone, And Marilyn Monroe

World War II is often credited with spurring the concept of mass production, which also happened to drones. The United States realized the potential of cheap, affordable drones in training. 

It started mass-producing target drones for its pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. The drone chosen was the Radioplane OQ-2, designed by Reginald Denny. The model was originally developed as a hobbyist radio-controlled drone. 

The US Army and Navy ordered over 9,400 units of the Radioplane OQ-2. They launched it as target practice for their anti-aircraft gunners. If the drone somehow survives the target practice, it can deploy a parachute and land safely. 

The Radioplane OQ-2 also has a unique history. An assembler of the drone named Norma Jeane Dougherty was first photographed here. The photo made her famous, and she later became the famous Marilyn Monroe.

Camera And Television Equipped Drones

In the 1930s, the US developed a system where a drone would fly alongside a human-crewed aircraft. The drone would be controlled by the aircraft. The drone is the Curtiss N2C-2, while the controlling plane is the TG-2.

In 1941, the US Navy started ‘Project Fox,’ where they improved on the design. They mounted a camera on the drone and a television on the controller plane. This gives the controller a clear vision of the drone’s movement.

The technology allows the drone to be more accurate. With the help of the camera and television, the attack drone hit a destroyer ship. The controller plane was 20 miles (32 KM) from the ship.

The technology, however, never saw wide adoption. The Navy proposed an assault team of 162 controller planes and 1,000 drones. But disagreements among Navy leaders resulted in the proposal dying a stillbirth.

Jet-Powered Drones

Suppose you are a fan of German aviation during World War II. In that case, you would know jet-powered planes like the Messerschmitt Me 262. Jet technology also found itself in drones on both sides of the war. 

The Germans developed the V1 and V2 cruise missiles, which ran on jet engines. These cruise missiles were used primarily to bomb London throughout the war. The Americans also developed their own jet-powered drone, the McDonnell TD2D Katydid. 

Drones During The Cold War

During the cold war period, drones became faster, more powerful, and deadlier. Drones also developed more uses and the use of UAVs became more popular. Drones no longer just function as target practice or delivering explosives. 

Drones also have more modern technology integrated into them. This allows drones to perform tasks such as surveillance and reconnaissance. Creating the perfect military UAV is still an ongoing challenge. 

Faster, More Powerful Drones

Drones were further refined throughout the cold war period. They become faster, more accurate, and as a result, deadlier. 

Jet propulsion technology further developed after World War II. As a result, planes started to fly faster and faster, exceeding the speed of sound. 

By the late 1950s, combat jets were able to exceed Mach 2. This also means drones need to achieve a similar speed. If not, they cannot function well as target practice for fighter jet pilots. 

The AQM-35 by Northrop was the answer. It has a long tube with short, stubby wings. It is powered by General Electric’s J85 jet engine, like the one used in the F-5 fighter.

Data Collection And Reconnaissance

Drones also started to receive more equipment mounted on them. This allows drones to perform tasks such as data collection and surveillance. This equipment includes sensors, cameras, and more. 

One of the prominent examples of this was Operation Crosswords. A B-17 Flying Fortress was converted into a drone and was then flown to Bikini Atoll. At the time, Bikini Atoll was a nuclear test site. 

The drone has equipment mounted to it to collect samples from the radioactive cloud. 

The US used reconnaissance drones such as the Ryan Model 147 ‘Lightning Bug’ in the 1960s and 70s. These drones fly over North Vietnam, China, and North Korea. 

Drones like the Ryan Firebee were also widely used during the Vietnam War. These drones performed reconnaissance tasks to support ground troops.

Drones Assisting Fighter Pilots

Drones have mostly operated alone. They mostly do tasks such as surveillance or delivering a load of explosives. Yet, drones could also serve alongside human pilots during air missions. 

The Israeli Air Force showed the way in 1982. They coordinated an attack containing human-piloted jets and drones. They were able to quickly destroy 88 Syrian planes with minimal losses. 

The Israelis used drones as electronic decoys and signal jammers in this attack. This confuses the Syrian anti-aircraft systems. Some drones also carry cameras to deliver real-time combat information to commanders. 

As a result, the commanders off-site have real-time information to make the best decisions. This brings excellent results to the attack.

Modern Combat Drones

As the 21st-century dawns, drones continue to receive upgrades and improvements. Drones also vary in size. There are now drones as small as the size of a coin to as big as a fighter jet. 

Drones also integrate more modern technology, such as solar and fuel-efficient propulsion. As a result, they also travel longer distances and stay in the air longer. 

Drones Supercharged By the Internet

One of the biggest improvements to modern drones is integrating them with the internet. As internet speed and technology develop, drones increasingly use the internet. In most cases, the internet helps to deliver real-time information to the controller.

This is often achieved with the advent of technology such as satellite internet. With it, drones can fly far distances and remain capable of staying in touch with the controller.

Internet-connected drones can also relay information in real time to the controller. This is usually done using cameras and sensors. The drone becomes the actual eyes and ears of the controller. 


Modern manufacturing processes are more refined and accurate. As a result, manufacturers are now able to produce smaller, finer parts that perform well. These technologies resulted in drones becoming smaller and more mobile.

Mini-drones are small enough to fit into the backpacks of ground soldiers. They can then launch the drone during missions for reconnaissance. Commanders of small military formations may then use the information to make decisions. 

Mini-drones can be as small as the size of your hands. There are also even smaller drones, which are categorically called micro-drones. The smallest drone right now, the Piccolissimo, is about the size of a quarter-dollar coin. 

Range-Extended Drones

Modern drones have also become more capable of flying longer distances. This is due to material, aerodynamics, and propulsion technology improvements. 

These range-extended drones are popular when they need to stay in the air for a long time. For example, long-range drones are usually common in extended reconnaissance missions. 

Drones stay in the air longer by using fuel-efficient power plants. Many also use light but tough materials and better aerodynamics.

Take, for example, the AAI Aerosonde. This drone carries a small Enya R120 model aircraft engine. One of the models, nicknamed ‘Laima,’ flew across the Atlantic ocean. It took off in Canada and landed in Scotland. It completed the flight using only 1.5 gallons (5.7 liters) of gasoline. 

The current record holder for drone flight time is the QinetiQ Zephyr 7. It stayed on the air for 336 hours and 22 minutes, from the 9th to the 23rd of July 2010. The drone is solar-powered and also flew to an altitude of 70,740 ft (21,561 M)

Larger military drones also developed the capability for refueling in the air. This also increased their range and operational time. Some drones carry fuel and are capable of refueling other planes. Examples include the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray.

‘Terror’ Drones

Drones have become smaller, simpler, and more affordable. As a result, drones have also become popular with terror groups. These smaller, cheaper drones were used as terror weapons. They are often loaded with explosives and shrapnel. 

These drones were then flown to enemy locations, delivering the payload. The drones usually drop the explosive and then fly away. But, some drones explode together with the explosive, making them ‘Kamikaze’ drones.

Modern Non-Combat Commercial Drone Technology

As drones become smaller and more affordable, civilians start to use them. Civilians use drones for commercial, research, and law enforcement. The commercial drone industry means that there are now millions of drones registered and many commercial drone permits. 

Drones used for civilian space are smaller. They generally use propellers connected to either battery or fossil fuel-powered motors. The world’s largest producer of civilian drones is DJI, owning over 76% of the market share. Intel comes second at a distant 4%.

Aside from the four uses below, drones are also used in many other ways.

Use of drones

Aerial Photography

Drones are very popular for aerial photography and videography. This is usually done by mounting drone cameras and taking pictures and videos with the drone in the air. 

Drones can capture images from unique angles and perspectives. This may not be done using traditional photography equipment. 

Modern drones are also stable, with many stabilization technologies. This allows photographers to capture stable, smooth footage even in turbulent conditions.

Drones are also easy to carry around and cost-effective. Drones can be brought on backpacks and launched from any location. 

Drones are also the most cost-effective way to capture images and videos from the sky. It costs much less compared to using planes or helicopters.


Drones are also increasingly relied on in eCommerce. Drones can be used to deliver products to customers in a quick and efficient manner. Drones are particularly popular in delivering small packages within close distance. 

Drones can also be used to automate inventory management. For example, staff can fly a drone around the warehouse shelves to check the stock level. This significantly reduces the risks of overstocking or understocking.

Drones could be used to automate warehouse management tasks. For example, once an order arrives, a staff member can fly a drone to pick up a product and deliver it to the packer. Once packed, the drone can pick up the parcel and bring it to the delivery team.

Law Enforcement

Many law enforcement agencies also use drones. Drones can be used to help in surveillance and search and rescue missions. 

For example, border agencies can use drones to monitor national borders. This ensures that no illegal crossings happen, whether humans or goods. Drones can also protect border agents better. They can first survey an area before approaching it. 

Many law enforcement agencies also use drones to conduct search and rescue operations. Generally, they fly drones to first observe the location. Then they determine the right approach to conduct the rescue operation. 

Drones could also conduct searches. This is valuable in far and wide places that may not be covered well by other manual methods. Drones may also be handy in crowd control, such as during protests or events, to ensure public safety.


Drones are popular in agriculture, especially in crop management. Generally, farmers use drones equipped with cameras to survey their fields. They also observe things such as crop growth and crop stress. 

Drones also help farmers to identify areas in need of fertilizing or irrigation. A single drone could cover wide tracts of land in a shorter time. Compare that to manual inspection methods, such as driving around. 

Drones also are much more cost-effective compared to surveying with a helicopter. This, in turn, allows farmers to reduce operational costs and increase yields. 

What Will Future Drones Look Like?

Generally, future drones will continue to develop by using current and developing technologies. These include artificial intelligence, collaborative drones, and also augmented reality. 

Drones may also be much more common in warfare. Modern concepts such as swarm attacks are becoming more popular. Future attack drones may also be even more accurate.

Artificial Intelligence

The field of artificial intelligence is in rapid development. It should find its way into future drones as well.

As a start, drones may develop the ability to operate with lesser human control. This means drones may be able to collect information and make certain decisions independently. 

For example, suppose a drone detected bad weather ahead. It could then automatically calculate and then change flight pathways. 

Collaborative Drones

Another exciting possibility with future drones is their increasing capabilities to work together. Collaborative drones can use sensors and onboard computers to communicate with each other. They can then take on complete tasks together. 

This possibility was first showcased around 2017. A group of researchers was able to program several drones to work together and build a rope bridge

But in the future, these drones may be able to build even more complex structures. They may also do it more independently. 

These drones could also work together to conduct search and rescue operations. For example, several drones can attach themselves to an injured person. Together, they fly the person out to safety.

Augmented Reality

Another way future drones can be used may be in the space of augmented and virtual reality. The drone could have cameras, sensors, and microphones in this case. The information collected is then delivered to a VR headset. 

Whenever the person turns or looks around, the drone changes its position. This allows the drone to show real-time visuals and sounds to the headset wearer. Integrating drones VR can be useful in situations such as virtual tours. 

Future Combat Drones

Drones will also become even more deadlier in the future. Future attack drones will become even more accurate. A drone can also deliver attacks in a smaller and more precise manner. This should result in lesser collateral damages. 

There are also concepts such as swarm attacks. In a swarm attack, a group of smaller drones attack a target en masse and in coordination. 

Many modern anti-aircraft defence systems use sensors to detect hostile flying planes. They then launch missiles to destroy them. 

When drones attack en masse, these air defence systems may become overwhelmed. This is because their sensors may detect too many flying objects. As a result, swarm drone attack is a valid strategy in warfare and may become common in future warfare.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a Drone pilot, Writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. His drone footage has been featured on TV (ABC Documentary) and he has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drones.