Drones seem to have emerged as one of the most discussed machines in the 21st century. They are everywhere – as toys, surveillance cameras, and staples of modern warfare. But for many, the facts have flown over their heads as to what drones are, what they do, and just how long they have been around.
According to Oxford Dictionary, the word “drone” refers to “a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or missile” - or in short, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Its resume spans from a harmless delivery vehicle to a ruthless machine of mass destruction, as evidenced by nearly 2700 military and civilian deaths in Pakistan alone due to drone strikes since 2015. Yet, the price range of drones is so low that they are often marketed as sophisticated toys starting from about 70 USD. Suffice to say, drones are extremely versatile yet relatively cheap vehicles that operate freely in the air. However, they did not start out in such compact, high-tech packages.
In the purest sense of the word, drones have roamed the planet since the 19th century, when Austrians used balloons as aerial bombers. But drones as we know them – namely UAVs with long-distance communication capabilities – appeared in 1910 when the US repurposed warplanes with autopilot systems into missiles called “The Kettering Bugs” via stabilizing gyroscopes and pressure sensors. But even the “Kettering Bugs” had been a shot in the dark as they were only capable of straight trajectories. Soon, radio-controlled vehicles appeared, but had little practicality; they suffered from choppy connections, difficult operations from afar, and easily targetable movements. At the advent of World War II, more precise missiles came into fashion and quickly eclipsed assault drones. Though the military approved small-scale missions such as the radio-controlled Radioplane or the pulsejet-powered TD2D-1 Katydid, the unmanned aircrafts’ utility proved to be limited throughout the war.
Drones finally emerged from their larval stage during the Vietnam War through reconnaissance missions. With the public actively protesting US participation in the war, the United States Air Force (USAF) was reluctant to send pilots into the enemy territory. In turn, the USAF created the Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron composed of drones that completed many surveillance missions successfully despite the thick jungles of Vietnam. Soon, drone development and application spread to other countries scrambling for competition. In addition to Israel that had used surveillance drones over Lebanon in 1982, major militaries since have recognized drones’ potential in aerial warfare, even if limited to auxiliary roles.
Entering the new millennium and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, drone technology took on a more offensive role. After the September 11 attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) started arming drones that could target enemies via precise intelligence given by other drone activities. The CIA deployed aptly named “Predators”, armed with Hellfire missiles, into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The use of armed drones has skyrocketed since 2010 in earnest of several world powers aiming to target Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The US, Turkey, Russia, UK, and Iraq have all flown drones in Iraq and Syria. Hezbollah and ISIL have retaliated with their own aircrafts, making Syria’s airspace a battleground for opposing factions.
From the most primitive balloon bombs to more sophisticated Predator drones, drone technology has travelled a long way since its inception. However, the future for drones is not limited to merely military uses. Only recently, the investment in commercial drones has been projected to outpace military investment with 2.3 billion USD in the US. Drones now occupy our lives in more personal and immediate ways than ever before. Despite its crawling start, the drone industry is growing at an evermore exponential rate.