A drone is simply any unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), and the first ones mentioned in history were actually bombs.
On August 22, 1849, unmanned balloons were launched by Austria, equipped with explosives. The plan was to attack Venice by dropping bombs on the city, and although some were successful, the raid wasn’t particularly impressive, and for obvious reasons. In a Time magazine article from 1949 (the 100th anniversary of the attack) it was said by one eyewitness that Venetians crowded the streets, clapping and shouting at the spectacle, and even applauding when the balloons blew and exploded over Austrians forces. The lesson in this attack, perhaps, is that a floating balloon containing incendiary devices isn’t particularly ideal.
To Austria’s dismay, the balloon bomb concept was not adopted by any other nation. However, 16 years after the Wright Brothers took their famous flight over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Great Britain developed the Aerial Target. Much like drones today, the first pilotless winged aircraft – designed by Nikola Tesla – was essentially a flying bomb England hoped to use to counter the German Zeppelins.
Unfortunately the prototype launches failed and the British military ultimately scrapped the project altogether. America created the Kettering Bug a year later, which was a marvel for the technology of its time. It was developed much too late for the war and was never used in combat. However, it led to an impressive number of future drone projects in the military.
UAV technology improvements during World War II and the Cold War were still rather unreliable and expensive, viewed more as novelties in comparison to the SR-71 Blackbird of the 1960s (even in retirement, it is still titled The Fasted Plane On Earth). However, the costs of this manned aircraft – both in development and operation – were immense, and a true replacement was never created. In 1989 Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry D. Welch explained the cost of these planes alone limited expenditures in other areas. The design of the plane cost roughly $18,000 per hour (in 1989 dollars) to maintain.
Drones became especially useful in the 1980s by providing combat surveillance to mark enemy positions, and tactical reconnaissance to photograph predesignated targets. Predator UAVs, for example, are long-endurance, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft systems that were used by the US Air Force and the CIA for armed reconnaissance and interdiction. The MQ-1 was armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Predators have flown over the Middle East since the late 90s.
Non-military drone use began in 2006 for purposes such as disaster relief, border surveillance, wildfire fighting, pipeline inspections, and pesticide spraying on farms. However, only very recently have drones been used recreationally. It is now not uncommon, for example, to hear of a wedding videographer also including drone coverage in their packages. And here at George Nice and Sons, drones are coming in handy on the job site, where we can photograph progress from above.
Overall this new technology has led to some pretty amazing innovations, and it’s safe to say that more are in the works. EHANG, a Chinese company, wants to utilize drones as taxis to carry passengers. Other companies are looking into creating drones that operate indoors. Either way, we’ve come a long way since the balloon bomb!
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