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Apr 3, 2023

In our previous episode, we looked at the history of flight - from dinosaurs to the modern aircraft that carry people and things all over the world. Those helped to make the world smaller, but UAVs and drones have had a very different impact in how we lead our lives - and will have an even more substantial impact in the future. That might not have seemed so likely in the 1700s, though - when unmann

Unmanned Aircraft
Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797 and then ceded control to the Austrians the same year. He then took it as part of a treaty in 1805 and established the first Kingdom of Italy. Then lost it in 1814. And so they revolted in 1848. One of the ways the Austrians crushed the revolt, in part employing balloons, which had been invented in 1783, that were packed with explosives. 200 balloons packed with bombs later, one found a target. Not a huge surprise that such techniques didn’t get used again for some time. The Japanese tried a similar tactic to bomb the US in World War II - then there were random balloons in the 2020s, just for funsies.

A few other inventions needed to find one another in order to evolve into something entirely new. Radio was invented in the 1890s. Nikola Tesla built a radio controlled boat in 1898. Airplanes came along in 1903. Then came airships moved by radio. So it was just a matter of time before the cost of radio equipment came down enough to match the cost of building smaller airplanes that could be controlled with remote controls as well. 

The first documented occurrence of that was in 1907 when Percy Sperry filed a patent for a kite fashioned to look and operate like a plane, but glide in the wind. The kite string was the first remote control. Then electrical signals went through those strings and eventually the wire turned into radio - the same progress we see with most manual machinery that needs to be mobile.

Technology moves upmarket, so Sperry Corporation the aircraft with autopilot features in 1912. At this point, that was just a gyroscopic heading indicator and attitude indicator that had been connected to hydraulically operated elevators and rudders but over time would be able to react to all types of environmental changes to save pilots from having to constantly manually react while flying. That helped to pave the way for longer and safer flights, as automation often does.

Then came World War I. Tesla discussed aerial combat using unmanned aircraft in 1915 and Charles Kettering (who developed the electric cash register and the electric car starter) gave us The Kettering Bug, a flying, remote controlled torpedo of sorts. Elmer Sperry worked on a similar device. British war engineers like Archibald Low were also working on attempts but the technology didn’t evolve fast enough and by the end of the war there wasn’t much interest in military funding.

But a couple of decades can do a lot. Both for miniaturization and maturity of technology. 1936 saw the development of the first navy UAV aircraft by the name of Queen Bee by Admiral William H. Stanley then the QF2. They was primarily used for aerial target practice as a low-cost radio-controlled drone. The idea was an instant hit and later on, the military called for the development of similar systems, many of which came from Hollywood of all places.

Reginald Denny was a British gunner in World War I. They shot things from airplanes. After the war he moved to Hollywood to be an actor. By the 1930s he got interested in model airplanes that could fly and joined up with Paul Whittier to open a chain of hobby shops. He designed a few planes and eventually grew them to be sold to the US military as targets. The Radioplane as they would be known even got joysticks and they sold tens of thousands during World War II. 

War wasn’t the only use for UAVs. Others were experimenting and by 1936 we got the first radio controlled model airplane competition in 1936, a movement that continued to grow and evolve into the 1970s. We got the Academy of Model Aeronautics (or AMA) in 1936, who launched a magazine called Model Aviation and continues to publish, provide insurance, and act as the UAV, RC airplane, and drone community representative to the FAA. Their membership still runs close to 200,000.

Most of these model planes were managed from the ground using radio remote controls. 
The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, was established in 1934 to manage the airwaves. They stepped in to manage what frequencies could be used for different use cases in the US, including radio controlled planes.

Where there is activity, there are stars. The Big Guff, built by brothers Walt and Bill Guff, was the first truly successful RC airplane in that hobbiest market. Over the next decades solid state electronics got smaller, cheaper, and more practical. As did the way we could transmit bits over those wireless links. 

1947 saw the first radar-guided missile, the subsonic Firebird, which over time evolved into a number of programs. Electro-mechanical computers had been used to calculate trajectories for ordinances during World War II so with knowledge of infrared, we got infrared homing then television cameras mounted into missiles and when combined with the proximity fuse, which came with small pressure, magnetic, acoustic, radio, then optical transmitters. We got much better at blowing things up. 

Part of that was studying the German V-2 rocket programs. They used an analog computer to control the direction and altitude of missiles. The US Polaris and Minuteman missile programs added transistors then microchips to missiles to control the guidance systems. Rockets had computers and so they showed up in airplanes to aid humans in guiding those, often replacing Sperry’s original gyroscopic automations. The Apollo Guidance Computer from the 1969 moon landing was an early example of times when humans even put their lives in the hands of computers - with manual override capabilities of course. Then as the price of chips fell in the 1980s we started to see them in model airplanes.

Modern Drones
By now, radio controlled aircraft had been used for target practice, to deliver payloads and blow things up, and even for spying. Aircraft without humans to weight them down could run on electric motors rather than combustable engines. Thus they were quieter. This technology allowed the UAVs to fly undetected thus laying the very foundation for the modern depiction of drones used by the military for covert operations. 

As the costs fell and carrying capacity increased, we saw them used in filmmaking, surveying, weather monitoring, and anywhere else a hobbyist could use their hobby in their career. But the cameras weren’t that great yet. Then Fairchild developed the charge-coupled device, or CCD, in 1969. The first digital camera arguably came out of Eastman Kodak in 1975 when Steven Sasson built a prototype using a mixture of batteries, movie camera lenses, Fairchild CCD sensors, and Motorola parts. Sony came out with the Magnetic Video Camera in 1981 and Canon put the RC701 on the market in 1986. Fuji, Dycam, even the Apple QuickTake, came out in the next few years. Cameras were getting better resolution, and as we turned the page into the 1990s, those cameras got smaller and used CompactFlash to store images and video files.

The first aerial photograph is attributed to Gaspar Tournachon, but the militaries of the world used UAVs that were B-17 and Grumman Hellcats from World War II that had been converted to drones full of sensors to study nuclear radiation clouds when testing weapons. Those evolved into Reconnaisance drones like the Aerojet SD-2, with mounted analog cameras in the 50s and 60s. During that time we saw the Ryan Firebees and DC-130As run thousands of flights snapping photos to aid intelligence gathering.

Every country was in on it. The USSR, Iran, North Korea, Britain. And the DARPA-instigated Amber and then Predator drones might be considered the modern precursor to drones we play with today. Again, we see the larger military uses come down market once secrecy and cost meet a cool factor down-market. DARPA spent $40 million on the Amber program. Manufacturers of consumer drones have certainly made far more than that. 

Hobbyists started to develop Do It Yourself (DIY) drone kits in the early 2000s. Now that there were websites, we didn’t have to wait for magazines to show up, we could take to the World Wide Web forums and trade ideas for how to do what the US CIA had done when they conducted the first armed drone strike in 2001 - just maybe without the weapon systems since this was in the back yard. 

Lithium-ion batteries were getting cheaper and lighter. As were much faster chips. Robotics had come a long way as well, and moving small parts of model aircraft was much simpler than avoiding all the chairs in a room at Stanford. Hobbyists turned into companies that built and sold drones of all sizes, some of which got in the way of commercial aircraft. So the FAA started issuing drone permits in 2006. 

Every technology had a point, where the confluence of all these technologies meets into a truly commercially viable product. We had Wi-Fi, RF (or radio frequency), iPhones, mobile apps, tiny digital cameras in our phones, and even in spy teddy bears, we understood flight, propellers, plastics were heavier-than-air, but lighter than metal. So in 2010 we got the Parrot AR Drone. This was the first drone that was sold to the masses that was just plug and play. And an explosion of drone makers followed, with consumer products ranging from around $20 to hundreds now. Drone races, drone aerogymnastics, drone footage on our Apple and Google TV screens, and with TinyML projects for every possible machine learning need we can imagine, UAVs that stabilize cameras, can find objects based on information we program into it, and any other use we can imagine. 

The concept of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has come a long way since the Austrians tried to bomb the Venetians into submission. Today  there are mini drones, foldable drones, massive drones that can carry packages, racing drones, and even military drones programmed to kill. In fact, right now there are debates raging in the UN around whether to allow drones to autonomously kill. Because Skynet. 

We’re also experimenting with passenger drone technology. Because autonomous driving is another convergence just waiting in the wings. Imagine going to the top of a building and getting in a small pod then flying a few buildings over - or to the next city. Maybe in our lifetimes, but not as soon as some of the companies who have gone public to do just this thought.