Drones have been around quite a lot longer than you might think. For one thing, Queen Bees have been deploying them for at least 100 million years. Even if you were thinking of drones that had evolved less naturally, then the timeline could, arguably, still be thousands of years long if you include the likes of early Chinese kites.
More realistically, though, things started in 1898 when Nikola Tesla demonstrated his radio-controlled boats – and if you don’t think boats count as drones, talk to PowerVision.
In fact Tesla’s patent for “telautomaton” also made it clear that these early drones were not just toys; the design diagrams in his submission indicates where a detonator would be placed. What was a nice model boat in a public demonstration at Madison Square Garden was in truth a forerunner of a future guided surface-running torpedo.
Getting radio controlled craft aloft first, however, was not a military achievement. Instead music-hall entertainers deployed hydrogen-filled model airships to amuse the crowds. They were rigged to turn in response to the radio frequency effects of sparks created in the room. Presumably this was an act that would have had rather less appeal if the dangers of the inflammable dirigibles were to be understood as they would be a few decades later, but at this point the Hindenburg disaster was still 30 years into the future.
During those decades, though, radio control found its way into rather more aircraft than dirigibles, not least because those aircraft were taking shapes we better know and understand. As early as 1871 Frenchman Alphonse Penaud had flown a rubber band-powered model in an 11-second flight over the Tuileries that established the curved wings, fuselage and tail we’re now familiar with. By 1903 those principles could provide enough lift and stability that the Wright Brothers were able to use them in their celebrated manned flight.
That success might also have been the impetus for numerous modellers, many who might have been considered the entrepreneurs of their day. Names like A. V. Roe, Fairey, Sopwith and de Havilland were members of the UK’s Society of Model Aeronautical Engineers, now known as the British Model Flying Association (BMFA). In 1907 Roe won a distance competition with a rubber-powered plane at Alexander Palace. The company he founded would go on to build the Lancaster bomber.
Power-to-weight was all important for modelling and it wasn’t until 1914 that the BMFA notes a powered flight – a seven-foot wingspan biplane managing 51 seconds aloft. Clearly this was a better solution than a rubber band. Small petrol engines and compressed air were emerging just before the First World War, and they had a lot more to offer propulsion than twisted rubber, but it’s fair to say that most potential enthusiasts had other things on their minds from 1914, especially in Europe.
Under commission from the US Army, Charles Kettering of Ohio designed and built the ‘Kettering Aerial Torpedo’, an unmanned flying bomb. Powered by an off-the-shelf Ford four-cylinder engine, it took off from a track and used a gyroscope system to maintain its stability (as opposed to turning) but the only ‘control’ as such was the flight duration – the prop was automatically cut after a certain number of revolutions, which was set in advance, so it wasn’t exactly ‘remote’ controlled. Not only that but the generals decided the risk of having it fly over allied positions on its way to a target was too great anyway, and so it was never used.
Between the wars, military development continued on either side of the Atlantic, with numerous remotely controlled aircraft being used as targets for training purposes. This was the true use of RC as we’d recognise it, and it’s even thought by some the term ‘drone’ comes from this time, since the de Havilland dH.82B, an adapted Tiger Moth first flown unmanned in 1935, was also called a “Queen Bee” by its makers.
In the inter-war years the first model aircraft emerged, too, and by 1937 the US even had a national contest. There were only six entrants, though, and only one was powered and that stalled and crashed. Back then RC systems consisted of gas-filled tubes. In this emerging series of competitions, twins Walt and Bill Good launched their ‘Guff’ (no, really) which is generally seen as the first successful RC model plane and now resides in the Smithsonian. They achieved this by eschewing the multi tube circuits of their competitors, building from scratch a super-sensitive relay. Turns were made by sending pulses that set the rudder to left, right or neutral, rather than with the calibrated sticks we use now.
Such was the technology of the day, small hand-cranked engines turned the prop, but there was no throttle control (and about ten minutes of fuel), and what little control was provided by the rudder still involved less-than-convenient radio equipment. This was some time before the transistor would revolutionise matters – and before then there was still another World War to be had. WW2 is notable in the history of RC aircraft if for no other reason than Marilyn Monroe (or Norma Jeane Mortenson as she was at the time) built drones during the conflict. Indeed, the photos of her working in a Radioplane factory helped to launch her modelling career and subsequent film success.
She was discovered by Army photographer David Conover in 1945 when he visited the plant near Los Angeles which mass-produced target aircraft for both the Army and Navy. The craft was designed by Reg Denny (who also happened to be a film star), who adapted it from a design by enthusiast Walter Righter. Reg had the connections to get the military contract and lots more media coverage besides, so it had already achieved plenty of attention as the “airship designed to be shot down” (as quoted from the LA Times, 28 January, 1938). Clearly the term ‘airship’ was still used a little differently.
The Post-War Years
Military use of UAVs was assured by this point and remote control technology had demonstrated its use in both training and weapon guidance. It was even possible to fly full-sized B-17 Flying Fortresses remotely, and this was done to avoid radiation over Bikini Atoll. By the time of the Vietnam conflict, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft would be flying over target areas and recovered once over hostile territory.
Hobbyists, too, were straight back to work; in many cases they had barely stopped. Denny’s hobby shop, and others like it, sold balsa kits, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that widespread availability of the transistor and the micro circuitry began to take the hobby into a more accessible place. By the late Sixties hand-held RC controllers with the Mode 2 configuration we’re familiar with today were available. Before then different methods for sending the right pulses existed, but many hobbyists used the more commonly available control system of the day: click-and-bang telephone diallers (touch-tone dialling wasn’t introduced until 1963 and didn’t become common until the 1980s.)
In the mid-1970s the arrival of Ni-Cad hastened the development of electric motors, which was good news in all areas of the RC industry. Lead-acid batteries had already been used by RC cars, but the power-to-weight ratio ruled them out for aircraft. Fast-forward to the early Nineties where Japanese toy company Keyence produced a ‘Gyro Saucer’ (its cheesy ads are on YouTube), which is the first product that really looks like the kind of quadcopter we’re familiar with, although it was mostly for indoor fun only.
By the end of the Nineties Christine and Zenon Dragan had established Draganfly and, after initially selling remote controlled flying saucers, the company produced a ‘quad helicopter’. In their own words it was “kind of hard to fly” but nevertheless the drone was sold to a number of research facilities, including MIT.
The drone that popularised the technology we’re familiar with today was Parrot’s AR.Drone, unveiled at the renowned Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2010. The French company was trying to build Bluetooth cars but that wasn’t enough for its bosses. “I was not satisfied. A videogame should contain a part of a dream that I missed with the Bluetooth car,” explained Henri Seydoux, founder and CEO of Parrot. “It should fly! So I started the idea of the AR.Drone. With video cameras and a powerful computer, we have developed a very stable drone that is easy to control and flies like a dragonfly.”
The AR.Drone introduced a lot of elements we’re now familiar with (or have been over-hyped since). It had two cameras – one downward facing ‘optical flow’ to track for drift, which the aircraft could compensate for, and an ultrasound sensor for simple landing. Three-axis accelerometers and gyros were also part of the make-up, components which had become small and cheap enough thanks to their large-scale mass production for the Nintendo Wii and the emerging smartphone market.
The range was limited to Wi-Fi, and the video signal wasn’t even 720P until the AR.Drone 2.0 hit a couple of years later, but this was undoubtedly the first mass-market product that we would recognise as a drone in the West. It certainly captured the attention of everyone at CES, including the awards committees and games developers, to whom Parrot offered an SDK (AR presumably stood for ‘Augmented Reality’). At the time you’d have bet on Parrot dominating consumer drones and it’s certainly still a major player, but the company is far from alone in the drone world.
The Modern era
A little under four years before the A.R.Drone launched, another company was founded as Frank Wang, or “Your Billionaire Drone Overlord” as Forbes now calls him, established DJI. It wouldn’t release the iconic Phantom until January 2013, but the company did start out selling a series of build-your-own frames called the Flame Wheel and various control modules. The Naza was a popular choice, able to take an RC signal and send it to four or six motors arranged however you chose, and with a GPS module for reliable flight.
Many early experimenters with quadcopters will have a Flame Wheel frame in the loft, even if they did not fit a Naza as these were relatively expensive. DJI hasn’t succeeded without competition, though. 3DRobotics, established by Chris Anderson (who also created TED), seemed likely to make a big impact, with $99 million in venture funding, a $350 million valuation, offices in four locations and all the right connections in Silicon Valley.
3DRobotics decided to build the Solo to challenge the Phantom. So much was DJI’s fast-selling quad in its mind that it even made its colour deliberately opposite: black rather than white. It looked awesome, but by the time it hit the stores in mid-2015 it was too little, too late. And too much as well, costing more than the Phantom and not including a camera or even a gimbal (both of which the then Phantom 3 did).
Since then 3DRobotics has shelved its remaining physical products and pivoted to focusing on software and services. Ironically one of the projects that fell by the wayside then was a racing prototype, Nemo, which might have proven a sensible direction. With drone technology established by the Phantom and others, the world has quickly begun to catch up. Governments have begun legislating, industries have started to see potential and enthusiasts have taken advantage of the continued technical improvements to make viable racers (which, in turn, have attracted organised events).
After over a century of history we owe thanks to the many devoted geniuses whose labours have brought us to this point. Now we can see many different, but equally exciting, futures for the technology, from multi-capable cameras through to automated emergency rescue drones, high-speed 3D sport and beyond. Although the future will owe as much to the software as it does to the hardware.
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