A Brief History of Drones

by FliteTest | February 28, 2018 | (1 Ratings) Posted in Just Fun

Where did our drones come from? It's a question that I've asked myself. Sure, it seems like it should be a fairly straightforward question, but the harder you look the further back you can trace the origins of the personal flying machines we use today. Let's take a trip back in time to where it all began.

'Ancient' History

To fully appreciate how modern drones came into existence during the 21st century we need to look at the wider history of unmanned aircraft in general. This field of aviation has seen parallels run alongside manned aircraft since the very beginning in the early 1900s. Most have a dark past as they've been employed as powerful weapons throughout the wars that have ensued since their inception. If you want to use the term 'drone' to any unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's), one could argue that early examples of drone use could include an attack on Venice by the Austrian military in 1849. The Austrians used balloons to drop small bombs onto the city. Another far earlier example of using unmanned aerial vehicles could include the use of rockets by the Chinese during the 13th century - however, it seems quite a stretch to tie rockets under the same banner as drones! Clearly, though, flying vehicles in some form have been used for centuries.  

Aircraft more akin to model aircraft were tested using small steam engine motors in the 1890s. These included Samuel P. Langley's experimental winged machines. They were some of the first heavier-than-air craft in the world. Launched via a catapult atop a houseboat on the Potomac River in Virginia, USA, the aeroplane flew for almost a mile! Unfortunately, later manned tests didn't go so well. 

Skipping forward to 1914, Lawrence Sperry designed a special gyroscope to construct the first primitive autopilots to help new aviators to fly. It was also around this time that radio guidance systems (essentially RC) were developed to control aircraft remotely. This culminated in the first remotely controlled flights of the Ruston Proctor AT (Arial target) in 1917. This was a step along for the Radio Control story from Nikola Tesla's first demonstrations of an RC boat in 1898.

During WW1, essentially 'flying torpedoes' were experimented with using Sperry's gyroscopic autopilot that enabled a biplane to be remotely controlled to a target up to 40 miles away. This was code-named the Kettering Bug Programme. However, the technology was never put to use as the war ended before the technology was ready to be used. 

It was in 1922 that the first 'Quadcopter' was invented. This was a primitive helicopter design that used four rotors in an 'X' type structure. Unfortunately, due to an almost unfathomable degree of mechanical complexity, the project was abandoned after around 100 test flights that had resulted in the highest altitude of 5 meters. Despite this, it was a start! This machine was known as the De Bothezat helicopter. 

WW2 saw another chapter of development that contributed to the creation of the modern drone. During the inter-war years, radio frequency (RF) transmitters made it far easier for aircraft to be controlled remotely. This technological advancement was taken advantage of by Germany during this period who developed the first cruise missiles. These were known as the V-1 flying bombs. Powered by pulse jet engines, they were guided from the coasts of German-occupied Europe aimed at London, the capital of Britain. 

The Luftwaffe also used radio-controlled bombs and torpedoes to attack warships. 'Fritz X' radio controlled guided bombs sank the Roma, an Italian warship, as it sailed to surrender to the Allies in 1943.

The allies also used radio-controlled unmanned aircraft during this conflict. One example of which was a modified twin-engined aircraft with a live video signal sent back to the operator. This was the first use of FPV on an aircraft. Another USAF development programme saw B-17's turned into unmanned aircraft, again using live video piloting. 

After WW2 was over, a slower pace of development in drone technology resulted in aircraft like the BQM-345 Firebee target drones. Many of these were developed into surveillance versions that first flew during the 1960s. These were the forerunners of modern military drones. 

The Era of Hobby Drones

The origins of specifically hobby drones can be found with the Paparazzi UAV Project back in 2003. From this, an open Source autopilot system was developed throughout the 2000s. Bugs were fixed, hardware developed and the usability of the technology by people without a PhD was generally improved. 

It was around 2009 that the hardware for building drones became very cheap. Combined with the mass-production of high-performance brushless motors and LiPo batteries allowed multi-rotors to emerge in style. Among these were machines like David Windestal's original tricopters featured on the early days of Flite Test back in 2011. By around 2014, the technology was well established and brands like Fatshark were getting in on the action with their rapidly improving video goggles. 

Ardupilot was also started in 2009 which quickly accelerated the technology bringing a host of new people to the hobby of building your own multi-rotors; sensors like gyros and accelerometers, readily available now due to the boom of smartphones, helped to build more stable and predictable machines. The rise in commercially available drones, most notably with the DJI Phantom, also highly contributed to developing better technology in general. 

New features were added year by year and steadily integrated into standardised control boards that were able to be flashed with improved firmware. Today, these components can be used to control a whole host of vehicles such as multi-rotors, airplanes, boats and ground vehicles as well as even rockets. 

Since the early days of the hobby at the beginning of the 2010s, not even a decade ago, we have seen a boom in the diverse and wonderful directions that 'drone technology' is heading in. It's saving lives in the form of emergency drones. It's revolutionising filmmaking in the form of flying cameras like the latest DJI Mavic Air. It's pitting people against each other in exhilarating drone racing championships. We can't wait to see what happens next. Whatever the next chapter holds, we'll be here to be part of it. 

Links To More

Life-Saving Drones

Our DJI reviews playlist 

A podcast on drone racing and how to get into it

Our store to pick up a drone kit 


Article by James Whomsley

FliteTest.com Editor



Instagram @jameswhomsley


rblubaugh on March 12, 2018
I found this to be an extremely interesting article. Very informative about the history of flight and drones in particular. Thank you to James Whomsley for your in depth study for this article.
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FliteTest on March 13, 2018
Pleased to hear that you enjoyed it! - James.
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