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Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Drones have become the workhorses of the sky, performing a number of functions previously left to aircraft or manual devices. Perhaps their greatest ability is to capture the wonder of our planet from above. During this blog we'll trace the progress of drones and their many applications.

Before we delve into the historical progress of drones, we must first define what they are. In modern terms, the word drone refers to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which don't require a pilot onboard in order to operate. Drone technologies may be broken down into two basic categories, piloted drones and autonomous drones, which do not require a human operator. The theory of drones dates back to 1849, when Austrian forces attacked Venice flying unmanned balloons filled with explosives. Each balloon carried between 24 to 30 lbs. of bombs, depending upon the number of bombs. Once in position, these bombs were dropped from their carrier balloons to cause both destruction and confusion on the city below. However, the Venetians were spared much of the destruction since many of the balloons were blown away from the target area. While the use of balloons bears little resemblance to the drones of today, the concept grew over time.

While progress on drone technology and applications moved at a relatively slow pace for the rest of the nineteenth century, an innovation in 1907 advanced the development of drones. A common feature of many modern commercial drones is the quadcopter configuration. This technology was developed by the Jacques and Louis Breguet, assisted by French physiologist Charles Richet, who built an early example of the gyroplane, a precursor to the helicopter. The design of the quadcopter was a revolutionary one for its time. Though it only flew four feet above ground, since four men were needed to steady the craft, the test flight proved the quad concept a viable one. Though not a drone in the strict sense, the flight proved more technology could make quadcopters practical to fly. World War I saw the first use of aircraft in military operations. Toward the end of the war, the US Army was working on aerial torpedoes. While not torpedoes, per se, they were an advanced concept for their time, designed along the lines of a cruise missile of today. Small biplanes like the Kettering Bug could be programmed to fly into a target, destroying both it and the target, though the war ended before they could be used. By 1920 practical quadcopters were being developed, which could conduct near routine take offs and landings. The Oehmichen No.2, invented the same year, had its first successful test flight in 1921. This copter made more than 1,000 flights and could hover in the air for three to five minutes, which was an achievement for its time since mechanical engineering was a complex science in its infancy.

In 1939 the United States had produced the first remote controlled aircraft, designated the Radioplane OQ-2. The OQ-2 was created by actor Reginald Denny and continued to play a major role in the Cold War, in addition to its service in World War II. The aircraft was 8 ft., 8 in. long with a wingspan of 12ft., 3in. and a weight of 105 lbs. The Convertawings Quadrotor first flew in 1956. This unique quadrotor design was to be the prototype for a larger civil helicopter and had many successful flights in the mid 1950's. The four rotors formed an H pattern with the rotor system designed so almost any combination of collective changes could be introduced into the four rotors. Though a promising craft, the project was cancelled due to a lack of military orders. During the Viet Nam War drones were utilized as dedicated photo reconnaissance UAVs for the first time. The US military was experiencing a coverage gap in aerial photo reconnaissance at the time. The SR-71 Blackbird was still under development, while satellite reconnaissance was just coming on line. The Lockheed U-2 was a good camera platform, but it had been shot down over both the Soviet Union and Cuba. Therefore, the USAF turned to drones to bridge the battlefield reconnaissance gap. Though there was a limited selection of drones at the time, the USAF had the Ryan 147B. The 147, first introduced in 1962, was a jet powered drone capable of performing a variety of missions to include surveillance, signals intelligence, electronic warfare, decoy and both low and high altitude photographic reconnaissance. The Ryan drone was a durable craft but was not equipped with landing gear, which saved weight. The 147 was to be launched from either a carrier aircraft or from the ground, using a solid rocket booster. At the completion of its mission, the drone deployed a recovery parachute and could be retrieved by either a helicopter or aircraft in flight.

By the 1980's Israeli engineers had developed drones with a video capability to monitor ground personnel for hours at a time. The Pioneer drone, developed jointly between Israel and the United States, was used extensively during the first Gulf War and was highly successful with an Iraqi ground unit surrendering to one. In the mid 1990's, a more capable drone was completed jointly by Israel and the United States. The MQ-1 Predator, which first entered service in 1994, was powered by a piston engine at the rear of the drone using a pusher configuration. It could loiter at an altitude of 25,000 ft. with a range of 400 miles. While initial versions of the Predator were designed for reconnaissance missions, by 2002 they were modified to carry two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, for operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Predators could conduct forty hour missions and made relatively stable camera platforms with a cruising speed of between 84-135 mph. By the time production ended in 2018, some 360 Predators were produced, with a number transferred to allied nations. In the late 1990's, the USAF sought a more capable drone to supplant the Predator for possible use in theater operations. The MQ-9 Reaper debuted in 2007, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the Reaper looked like a bigger Predator (by nearly one-third) there were important differences between the two drones. Though both drones were produced by General Atomics, the Predator was powered by a 115 hp. piston engine, while the Reaper was powered by a 900 hp. turboprop powerplant. The MQ-9 was also capable of carrying fifteen times the weapon load of the MQ-1, in the form of both laser-guided missiles and bombs. Though the missions usually ran from between twenty three to thirty hours, due to the greater weapon load of the Reaper, the MQ-9 could loiter as high as 50,000 ft. with a range of 1,200 miles. The cruising speed of the MQ-9 was between 180-240 mph. While both drones mount cameras and weapon payloads, the Predator's mission is one of reconnaissance in force while that of the Reaper is one of search and destroy.

Bolstered by military applications over the past thirty years, in addition to the landmark FAA Part 107 rule approved in 2016, which established clear requirements for the operation of commercial drones in the United States, effectively made the skies open for business. Not long after Part 107 approval, the FAA began to issue thousands of drone permits per year. However, not all operations are covered by Part 107. Instead they require a waiver, which people or businesses can apply for. Sometimes, it can take months before the waiver process is complete and waivers aren't always approved, though drone operations are governed by similar regulations in several other countries. Agricultural and industrial applications were the first markets touched by commercial drones. Drones were used to manage crops and carry out inspections. Due to tight margins in the agricultural segment, other industries such as utilities, mining, renewable energy and drone deliveries have outpaced it in the use of drones. The drone inspection market has increased drastically over the last few years. According to a recent energy publication, the value of drone inspections for confined spaces to include Oil and Gas, Mining, Marine Vessels, Chemicals and Power Generation was $795.12 million in 2019 with a projected value of $1,936.32 million by 2027. This growth has been aided in part due to approval in 2021 by US aviation regulators of fully automated drone flights. In essence, companies could operate autonomous drones without anyone observing or controlling it onsite. Drones play a vital role in emergency response. Drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras provide emergency response teams with an effective means of identifying victims, locating them sooner and saving lives. Speaking of saving lives, drones outfitted with thermal imaging cameras may be used to track diseases, in support of ground surveillance efforts. Drones can also deliver medical supplies to people in rural areas, isolated from the more traditional means of delivery. Other applications of drones are law enforcement and border control surveillance, gathering information and supplies for disaster management, mapping of inaccessible terrain and locations, thermal sensor drones for search and rescue operations and aerial photography for journalism and filming. Perhaps the crowning achievement of commercial drones is their ability to deliver packages. Amazon first began testing delivery drones in 2013, formally petitioning the FAA for the right to do so in 2019. A year later the petition was approved, limiting the deliveries to weights and locations.

While the commercial drone industry has experienced regulatory problems over the last ten years, the hobby drone industry has grown unabated. The majority of hobby drones are quadcopters, or drones with four propellers, although a few octocopters (eight propellers) are currently in production. Both drone types are less expensive than commercial units, which typically cost above $2,000. The future of both drone and drone technology is a bright one. Business Insider projects global shipments of drones to increase to 2.4 million by 2023-a 67% compound annual growth rate. With the trends of making drones both smaller and more capable, consumer demand is expected to grow. The majority of both hobby and commercial drones are now equipped with cameras. With the proliferation of smart phone camera technology, the cost of both drone types will continue to drop. Within just the last five years, the drone market has grown with more manufacturers entering the industry, ultimately lowering their cost. And finally, the safety, stability and ease of operation make both the quadcopters and octocopters a joy to fly.

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