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The History of Drone Technology: A Look Back

Drones are quickly becoming some of the most versatile equipment in modern society. From social media influences using them to catch amazing videos to search and rescue teams being able to scan large amounts of rubble to save people faster, its uses are vast. Innovative minds have taken these pilotless flyers to new heights. While many still think of drones as a very recent invention, their history dates back much further. So strap in and let's take a look back at how the modern drone came to be.


The Early Days: A History of Drones

If there is one thing we know about humans, it's that they were never content with being contained to the land. Icarus flying too close to the sun with his wings held together by wax. The Vimana is described in Hindu texts as a flying palace. Numerous mentions of flying ships or magic carpets throughout ancient stories. We needed to get into the sky. Before we get into unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, we need to explore the early forms of manned aircraft. Large kites that could carry a man started in China as early as the 5th century, and next came the hot-air balloon (though it is still debated if China had the first one that could carry a man). In the 15th century, we see Leonardo da Vinci draw wonderful flying contraptions, he never got to test these out, however.

Leonardo da Vinci's Drone Drawing

If we are being super technical with the term UAV, the first one appeared in 1783. A hot air balloon, controlled from the ground by brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, carried a chicken, a duck, and a sheep 6000 feet above the ground. Making it the first, technical UAV. If we’re looking at the direct predecessors to the modern drone, that came about one hundred years later in 1898 and wasn’t actually a flying object! Nikola Tesla developed the first radio-controlled boat, setting the stage for the tech behind the modern drone (and the inspiration behind our name).

Nikola Tesla's Patent for Remote Controlled Drone

Jumping forward another 30-ish years, the first radio-controlled aircraft known as the “Kettering Bug”. Charles Kettering from the USA invented this UAV during World War 1 in alliance with British forces. The Big worked by using a system of pre-set pneumatic and electrical controls to keep it stabilized while flying. When it was flown to its location of choice, controls would make the wings detach and the engine stop, causing it to fall from the sky. It could carry 180 pounds of explosives making it a UAV torpedo. This tech directly paved the way for UAV development in the subsequent years for the military to use as surveillance during war.


1980s to 1990s: Expanding Horizons

Here is when the technology starts to get a little less rudimentary, and a little more fun. Unfortunately, as with a lot of our current tech, the UAV's main purpose was for war. Between the invention of The Bug in 1917 and the beginning of the 1980’s we see more research towards drones. From being able to more precisely control their movements, to adding on surveillance devices. Reconnaissance started to become the main function of these military drones as compared to their predecessors which were mostly used for training or explosive delivery.


RQ2 Pioneer Drone
RQ2 Pioneer Drone which was used for scouting during the Gulf War.

Though multiple countries were developing UAV technology at this time, like Israel’s battlefield UAVs in 1982, the US started to scale up its drone production a few years after in 1985. This was partly due to the devastation caused by the Vietnam War which had ended just 10 years earlier. Israel’s developments in 1982 proved that drones were faster, better, and created fewer casualties and the US wanted in. The US and Israel worked together to create the RQ2 Pioneer Drone which was used for scouting during the Gulf War.


A US Air Force MQ-1 armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles

Next came the Predator Drone around 1996. Abraham Karem helped the US create this highly technical and weaponized drone. This drone is also credited for creating the image of attack drones we now have in our minds when thinking of war.


At the same time, drones started to pick up the interest of more commercial industries. The push then came towards making these for other, less attack-y, purposes.


2000s: A Boom in Innovation

2006 was a big year for the civilian drone industry! That is when the FAA first allowed UAVs to be allowed in civilian airspace. UAVs aided in search and rescue missions after Hurricane Katrina and Predator drones were repurposed with thermal cameras able to find human heat signatures up to 10,000 feet away.



Companies like Parrot, DJI, and 3DR were already itching to play with this new tech and make it more consumer-friendly soon after. In just a few short years, quadcopters and multirotors became popular designs for more commercialized drones. These were small, easy to maneuver, and had the ability to hover, making them perfect for non-military trained flyers. Advances in other technology helped drones as well. Improved battery life, global positioning system (better known as GPS), and cameras were added to these already cool pieces of tech. Making them smaller also allowed people to fly them both indoors and out.


We also saw a rise in more realistic drone representation in movies around this time. Stealth and Syriana came out in 2005 showing a glamorized version of military drones in action. Mission: Impossible III and Body of Lies showed the fun spy capabilities of drones and Eagle Eye has a drone trying to kill the main protagonist. It wasn’t all positive pop culture though. Citizens were becoming more aware of why and how drones were being used overseas around this time. Public opinion on whether or not these were good started in the early 2000s and what this technology would look like in the future.


This is also when Tesla’s Drones started our efforts in the Pacific Northwest. With an ultimate mission to make drone technology more accessible and help improve our local communities.


2010s: The Commercial and Recreational Rise

Get ready for commercial and recreational drone technology to explode at this time. The 2010s is when we see drones expand into the industries we see today. Agriculture, real estate, photography, and everything we now know drones are used in got its start around this time.


The big drone companies we all know today started to rise in popularity. DJI, Parrot, Autel, and the best Tesla’s Drones in 2017 (sorry, had to toot our own horn for a second). We started to see companies make drones for everyone. Smaller, easier-to-control ones, with cameras for the regular citizen. Like the Parrot AR drone which only took a person's smartphone to operate. Ones outfitted with high-tech cameras for photography. Like DJI’s Phantom series, which cemented it as one of the biggest sellers of consumer drones.


Around 2013 is also when already already-established companies started to explore how they could use this innovative machine. Amazon, UPS, Uber, and many other large delivery-based industries began to test drones for deliveries. 2015 saw the first legal delivery of medical supplies by drones, a market that is still expected to grow to nearly 1 billion dollars by 2027.


The idea of drones as a hobby also became popular, thanks to drones becoming slightly cheaper, also more accessible. Other countries weren’t slacking on commercializing drones either. By the beginning of the 2020s Israel, China, along with the US and about 50 other countries were designing and manufacturing their own drones for commercial or individual consumer purposes.



With how popular drones were becoming, it was time to think of something else, regulations. Testing started in 2013 to figure out how to best integrate drones into national airspace. Category types were introduced soon after setting limits on where commercial drones can go and what they can do. Of course, these regulations weren’t set in stone yet as we continued to see how we could use these unmanned aircraft for rescue missions. 2014 was when the film and television industries started to get approval to use UAVs in production. The Know Before You Fly campaign also began in an effort to teach safety and regulations to the average civilian looking to buy a drone.


Regulations and efforts to educate the public have taken many forms since then. New research and developments along with safety concerns have continued to evolve how we interact with this tech.


2020s: Specialized Applications and Societal Impact

We might sound like a broken record, but in the 2020s we see another big boost in drone tech and applications. Drone technology has combined with other computer advances, opening us up for more innovations.



Search and rescue has benefited greatly from drones. Thermal imaging means we can scan larger areas and detect missing people under rubble faster. Drones can also deliver supplies and light to areas difficult to reach by any other methods. Their use in assessing areas struck by disaster is also imperative for rescuers to know what they are about to walk into. Cameras on drones can share what is happening live with all members of search and rescue teams and help plan safe routes for groups to enter in order to save people. Honestly, drones are now some of the most important tools used by search and rescue.


Drones combined with computer programs can also help with 3D modeling and orthomosaic maps. Data can be instantly sent back and created into these 3D images faster and more accurately. This tech also keeps people safely on the ground instead of collecting this data themselves, especially when it comes to more dangerous or large areas. 3D mapping done by drones is used in a variety of fields like urban planning, architecture design, farming, construction, environmental monitoring, and public safety.



With the rise of interest in social and environmental causes, drones are seeing a new calling in the 2020s. Let’s look at reforestation efforts. Did you know early methods included many people with bags of seeds wandering blackened forests, digging holes, and planting them by hand? Drones can access reseeding sites faster, map out how best to plant to avoid waste, and drop seed vessels full of nutrients to speed up this important environmental effort. Drones are also being used in community services more often, something Tesla’s Drones aims to continue and improve. From promoting safety to providing low-cost or free drone services to the people around us who need them, we are constantly striving to make drones accessible to everyone.


Tesla’s Drones also is working on educating companies on how to integrate drone technology to make safer workplaces. Fields like construction can use drones to assess their sites for concerns before sending in workers or getting needed images while people remain on the ground. The agriculture industry can also benefit from drones. Crop dusting is one of the most dangerous jobs on the farm because of how low pilots have to fly. We can cut that number down to zero with drones outfitted with spray nozzles. Any field needing to inspect potentially dangerous sites can use drones to ensure safety or get the needed pictures as well. As drones continue to grow we are sure to see even more uses that help better society and improve tech.


Future Outlook: Where Are Drones Heading?

AI is all the rage currently, and many are starting to wonder how we are going to see it combine with drone technology. The idea of drones with autonomy and intelligence is scary to some and exciting to others. Here are some of the possibilities with these two together.


Advanced intelligence would allow drones to make decisions themselves based on environmental factors, and obstacles to optimize their flight paths. This can also mean we can send drones to complete certain tasks completely on their own instead of having a human behind the controller. Data collected by drones in fields such as agriculture can be sent back to computers and assessed by AI software to give solutions or feedback faster than ever. As of right now, drones in agriculture or inspection-related industries still need their data combed over by human eyes. With AI, data collection and analysis can happen in the blink of a human eye!



AI is also seeing the development and advancement of a new type of drone tech, swarm drones. Something you might already be familiar with in swarm drone development is the firework-free light shows that are rising in popularity. Not only do these create more intricate and fun designs in the sky, but they also prevent the large amounts of debris caused by fireworks or the disruption to local animal communities and migrating birds.


The military is already testing swarm drone technology in the field in order to get more data and cover larger distances without putting humans in harm's way. The same idea is being explored by those in disaster relief and search and rescue.


We are also going to see a rise in drones used in environmental sustainability and research. Again, data collection being one of the top things drones are used for. Researchers are starting to make the switch to drones to gather information on solar energy reflection and other factors of climate change. Drone technology can also lower our carbon emissions in the future. By simply switching out trucks for drones in that final stage of delivery, we can lower greenhouse gas emissions by 84%.


Conclusion

Man's journey to conquer the skies has certainly taken us to great heights, pun very much intended. Drones started in early military operations and paved the way for more commercial uses. The love for drones quickly spread across the nation with people from many industries learning how best to integrate this tech. A recent shift towards more environmental efforts is also aided by drone technology. Overall, drones have made our jobs safer, our research faster, and our skies a little more fun. Tesla’s Drones are always at the forefront of new research and developments in the world of drones. We’re pushing the boundaries on what drones can offer and how we can help our communities.


Sources

See where we got our information from and learn more about the individual advances using the links below.


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