Drones: Where They Came From and Where They’re Heading

Post Update:

It’s June 16th, 2020, and as we continue to stay indoors in these troubling times we can still have a bit of fun right? Flying a drone around in the backyard can be a good time, but it can be even better if you have a decent handle on how to fly one. Trust me, they are way more challenging than you’d think. Jenny Brown of Hobby Help recently posted a great article called “The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Flying Drones”. Give it a read if you’re interested in learning how to fly a drone! Cheers!

Whether they be an annoyance or an opportunity, drones are set to redefine how we live our lives. Just as aviation pioneers in the 1900s reshaped how we see the world, drone pioneers of this century will follow suit. Aviation sparks the imagination in ways the majority of things don’t. Humans have always wanted things we can’t, flight being chief among them. Just because our bodies are limited by gravity and a pair of wings doesn’t mean our minds are.

Drones are a fantastic innovation that we are just now exploring. From investigating Mars to delivering blood in distant regions, drones can navigate terrain and spaces inaccessible to humans. Needless to say, there are too many benefits to realistically quantify, but let’s take a look at some of the fantastic things drones are capable of doing, for better or worse.

Photo: Klara Kulikova, Unsplash


Before Drones

Early Aerial Photography

Perhaps one of the most obvious attractions to owning a drone is their ability to take some pretty cool pictures from high above. Before the time of drones (or really airplanes for that matter), aerial photographs had to be taken differently.

Above San Fransisco in 1906

In the early 1900s, the portable camera was undergoing rapid evolution from a stand-mounted light-etching device to a handheld instrument capable of capturing images on film. It was the innovation of camera manufacturers, and of George Lawrence, that made aerial photography possible.

George Lawrence is known for his photograph of San Fransisco shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1906 that flattened a great portion of the city. For this photo, Lawrence developed a sort of drone-like rig that was capable of taking pictures 1000ft above the ground. The camera shutter was magnetic, and was operated via an electric charge. Although not a ‘drone’, the photography rig did not require someone to strap themselves to a dangerous system of kites and wires just to take a picture.

Not a perfect solution, the photo of San Fransisco taken by Lawrence netted him the equivalent of approximately $400,000. It’s hard to imagine someone making that much money off of a photograph, especially in 1906, but at that time aerial photography was absolutely revolutionary and offered people a glimpse of the world from the skies.

Spy Kites in WW1

The airplane was in its ‘early childhood’ (beyond infancy) by the time the first world war rounded the bend, but it didn’t take long before planes were used in aerial reconnaissance. Early aviators on both sides would take to the skies, on clear days, and snap photos of enemy defences and movements before returning safely home. These planes were, of course, subject to ground fire and small arms fire from enemy planes and it didn’t take long until the planes themselves were weaponized.

Balloons were also used in WW1 for reconnaissance, but provided an easy target for enemy aircraft. So, armies tested kites. People would sit in a bosun’s seat to be lifted high above the ground by the string of a kite in order to take photographs from the air.

Needless to say this didn’t really get off the ground, but the concept is intriguing nonetheless.

It’s interesting, however, that they did not turn to that other type of technology that had been pioneered nearly a decade before the outbreak of the war to end all wars. My suspicion is that cameras still needed manual operation during that time, and were probably only capable of taking a single photo before being cycled once again. Thus necessitating human hands.

Photo Credit: British Library, Unsplash


Spy Planes

Planes were used fairly early on in WW1 to photograph enemy movements, but quickly realized their potential as weapons of war. Air crews would consist of a pilot and a gunner/photographer. The pilot was tasked with holding the vehicle steady while the photographer snapped photos of the ground with a vertically-mounted camera.

Aerial reconnaissance in WW2 was similar to WW1, with the exception of more advanced technologies. Planes got more robust and faster while cameras got clearer, able to take photos from a greater altitude.

As with even the fastest and most advanced spy planes ever built, automation and autonomy is the ultimate goal. The ability to remove the human from the cockpit of a plane reduces operator risk to a negligible amount. That is why drones first appeared and why they continue to advance. Civilian drones are a more practical version of the military surveillance drone and are built for an entirely different purpose. But before that, let’s briefly go over military drones.

A Brief History of the Military Drone

Cool things are invented by the military regularly, and take a few days to pass into civilian hands. Drones are an obvious one but in this list of military alums is the Internet, Duct Tape, Walkie Talkies, Digital Photography, Sat Nav, and Night Vision.

In this section we briefly go over:

  • Kettering Bug
  • Mastiff Drone
  • Predator/Reaper
  • Perdix

First UAV: Kettering Bug

Although not controlled remotely, the first UAV was developed during WW1. The ‘Bug’ used a system of gyroscopes and sensors to guide the aircraft to its destination and then plummet into its target.

The ‘Bug’ definitely wasn’t the most accurate system ever developed, but the principles employed in its design led to the advent of cruise missiles and future UAVs.

Israel: 1973

Although quite a jump in the timeline, its understandable. Technology needed to develop before unmanned aerial reconnaissance as we know it today could appear. Thus, in 1973, the Israeli military created the Mastiff, an unmanned aerial drone.

1973 marks the first time a modern drone took to the skies. The drone was capable of transmitting high-quality video to operators on the ground for surveillance purposes. The drone was capable of flying a maximum of 7.5 hours and at a top speed of 185 km/h (115 mph).

Since then reconnaissance UAVs have advanced significantly, this can be seen in the AAI RQ-2 Pioneer which debuted in 1986 and was decommissioned in 2007. And the AAI RQ-7 Shadow, which is still in production.

Predator: 1996

What may be the most well-known drone is the Predator. Produced from 1995 until 2008, the Predator still sees some limited service worldwide, but for a long time it was a feared machine operating in many parts of the Middle East and Asia at the behest of four Air Forces.

The Predator had its flaws, it was slow and easily encumbered by ice and bad weather. The Predator B, or Reaper, is less susceptible to weather and is quite a bit faster. Although not as fast as a fighter jet like the F-16 or F-18, the Reaper flies at a maximum speed of about 480 km/h or 300 mph, and can carry 3,800 pounds or 1700 kilos.

Photo Credit: James Wainscoat, Unsplash


Drone Swarms: 2016

Called Perdix, these pigeon-sized autonomous drones are released from airplanes to surveil or otherwise cause strategic havoc in an airspace by disrupting radar. The small drones can operate as a unit by ‘communicating’ with each other and ‘deciding’ if the parameters of a mission have been met.

Although not inherently weapons-capable, these drones could potentially be outfitted with explosive devices or could act as a guide for larger munitions.

And that sums up the brief history of military drones. Of course there’s more to be discussed, but that should be left for another article and by someone more knowledgeable in military technology.

Now, on to better things!

Civilian Drones

Quadcopters have been around for quite a while, debuting in the 1920s. At first they were clumsy to operate and often times underpowered. A variety of designs appeared from the 20s to the 50s, but they didn’t really take off until relatively recently. Advanced software is needed to properly control the vehicles as they continuously need to adjust for differences in windspeed, altitude, and object collision. Quad copters consist of four rotors working simultaneously to maintain stable flight. Each pair of rotors spins inverse to one another, and each changes in speed and pitch to remain as stable as possible. Making constant corrections to this essential flight system is too much for a pilot to handle. Enter software.

We all know that drones can be used for spying or delivering Amazon packages, but there are many other potential uses for them.

Humanitarian Efforts

Natural disasters happen all the time. We can’t prevent them, but we can prepare for their aftermath. 2006 was the first year that civilian drones were permitted in the US. Hurricane Katrina was devastating to say the least and survivors could have been helped much faster had drones been readily available to search for them. Drones have a significant advantage over satellite imaging following hurricanes and typhoons as they can fly below the clouds, which can take days to dissipate following a large storm.

Since 2012, Haiti has employed drones to survey the island following a major disaster to assess the level of damage done, as well as the approximate number of people who need immediate assistance.

Not only can drones be used to search for survivors, but they can also drop off much needed medical supplies, anti-venoms, and vaccines to the most remote regions of the world. As drone technology evolves, their payload capacity increases, before long drones will also be able to deliver medical equipment and devices to the places and people needing help the most.

Photo Credit: Marco Topete, Unsplash


Archaeology

Surveying is one of the first things archaeologists do while inspecting a potential dig. This often involves a multi-step process that can take days or even weeks. Drones help to minimize survey time through AI and Machine Learning. Although not 100% accurate, in the future drones will be able to reliably detect clues and lead archaeologists in the right direction.

Drones will also eventually allow archaeologists to search caves and caverns deep below ground too treacherous for humans to visit. Potentially, drones could safely remove artifacts from these dangerous locations for study. Underwater drones also exist, but their steep price tag and current technologies limit their effectiveness for deep study.

Underwater drones could also be used to retrieve the bodies of cave divers while posing little to no risk to human recovery teams.

Exploring the Solar System

Although not civilian tech, teams at NASA are working on drones to survey the surface of Mars. The Mars drone is very unique and unlike anything we use here on Earth. The Martian atmosphere is 1% the density of ours, meaning that the rotors need to spin much faster to gain even a small amount of altitude. The Mars drone’s rotors spin 5x faster than a regular helicopter at 2,300 rpm.

Eventually, autonomous vehicles will explore the entirety of our solar system while we all watch from home.

Flying Taxis

Of course this made the list. Among the latest in a never-ending stream of claims from Silicon Valley are flying taxis. Uber recently partnered with Hyundai to develop a flying taxi system. For now, pending government approval, these taxis will be operated by a pilot. We are a long way off from autonomous flying taxis, but it’s a neat idea.

Photo Credit: Patrick Brinksma, Unsplash

Pollenation

With the bee populations declining globally, we need to step in and solve the problem before it is too late. Although this is just one variation of pollenating drones, many more will surface.

The drones hover over flowers and suck up pollen. Then they carry the pollen to other flowers and distribute it. It is a simple concept but it's truly revolutionary and marks a prediction for the future. Using robots to fill in ecological gaps created by our presence. Drones can be used to distribute seeds, facilitate mating in endangered species, control populations, or fight pests like mosquitos.

The World’s Food Supply

Drones are excellent agricultural tools. The true power of drones lies in their ability to hoist a powerful camera or other tools high into the air. Through the camera we are able to analyze images using pattern recognition to predict outcomes and understand what is currently happening in an area, in this case, a farmer’s field. Farmers can improve irrigation, spray pesticides, manage livestock, monitor planting and undertake many other tasks using drones.

Drones can be programmed to fly a specific path over a field to complete specific tasks every day or as needed. Farms using agricultural drones can save time and increase yields by monitoring soil, crop growth, and finding pests.

Not only are drones useful for farming, they can be easily engineered to assist in replanting efforts following deforestation.

Filmmaking

Drones are used extensively in film and TV. Before, cameras would be mounted to expensive helicopters or potentially dangerous rigs. Drones are available at the fraction of the cost of some more traditional filming apparatus. The relatively small size of a drone also allows filming to happen in spaces where a larger camera could not fit.

Conclusion

There are many uses for drones and many economic opportunities associated with them. Mining drones will operate in space and medical drones will conduct minor surgeries in remote locations. It’s all just a matter of time.

But until then, let’s just enjoy flying around and taking pictures of each other.