What is a drone and how we can define it?
One of the most used definitions for drone is: “An unmanned aircraft or ship that can navigate autonomously, without human control or beyond the line of sight”. Another frequently used definition is: “ Unmanned aircraft capable of sustained flight in the air and controlled remotely.”
Drones have been around for years, and they are used for different purposes and can be of help in numerous occasions. However, these stealth craft are becoming increasingly popular, not just for war and military purposes, but also for everything from wildlife and atmospheric research to disaster relief and sports photography.
History of Drones
Many cite that the origin of drones dates back to 1849, when Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons stuffed with explosives. However, these balloons do not meet the current definition of drones, which according to The Oxford English Dictionary is “a remote-less controlled piloted aircraft or missile”.
Going by the definition, the first pilotless aircraft were developed after World War I in 1916. Shortly after, the U.S. Army built the Kettering Bug, intended to be used as “aerial torpedoes” using gyroscopic controls. The first Kettering Bug flew in 1918, but the war ended before it could be used.
Source: Bill Larkins/Wikimedia Commons
The UAV technological developments, however, continued, and in 1930, the U.S. Navy began experimenting with the radio-controlled aircraft, which resulted in the development of Curtiss N2C-2 Drone in 1937. Simultaneously, in 1935, the British developed “Queen Bee”, the radio-controlled target, which is also believed to have led to the use of term “drone” for unmanned aircrafts which are particularly radio-controlled.
Radioplane OQ-2, the remote-controlled aircraft developed by Reginald Denny during World War II actually became the first mass-produced UAV product in the U.S. Nearly 15,000 drones were manufactured for the army during the war.
However, the actual credit for inventing a radio-controlled aircraft that could fly out of sight goes to Edward M. Sorensen who patented his invention that could know what the airplane is doing from a ground terminal. Without these patents, early RC aircrafts could only operate within the visual sight of the controlling pilot.
Even though the U.S. was able to achieve a breakthrough in mass-manufacturing and supplying drones for the military, UAVs were often considered unreliable and expensive. This perspective however changed in 1982 when Israel forces used unmanned aircrafts to gain victory over Syrian Air Force with minimal losses. The U.S. also began the Pioneer UAV Program in 1980 to build an inexpensive drone for fleet operations. A joint project by U.S. and Israel in 1986 further led to the development of RQ2 Pioneer – a medium sized reconnaissance aircraft.
Mini and micro versions of the UAVs were introduced in 1990, and the famous Predator was introduced in 2000, which was used in Afghanistan for the search of Osama Bin Laden. In the following years, the number of small-sized, fixed-wing surveillance drones such as Raven, Wasp, and Puma were introduced by an American technology company AeroVironment Inc. Raven is currently used by many countries, with around 20,000 units already deployed.
While most of the drone flights were for military purposes, in 2014, Amazon proposed the use of UAVs to deliver goods. Drones also became a popular component for filming and photography. However, these consumer drones have seen increasing interest not because of military influence. It is actually a result of the merger of two completely different technologies: radio-controlled (RC) aircrafts and smartphones.
The rapid growth in the usage of smartphones reduced the prices of microcontrollers, accelerometers and camera sensors, which for fixed-wing hobbyist aircraft became ideal to be used. Further research showed how a drone with 4 or more rotors can be controlled by adjusting the speed of individual rotors. The stability of multirotor aircraft opened up new possibilities for it to be used in a number of ways over fixed-wing aircraft.
Source: Don McCullough/Flickr
There’s also a growing trend of DIY drones, which are small RC UAVs (SUAV). Because of its smaller size and portability, these DIY drones are seeing great potential to be used by police forces and fire services for surveillance requirements. However, these type of unregulated UAVs also has raised questions about privacy and physical safety.