Archibald Low
Archibald Low

The history of drones dates back to the early days of aviation. Even around a hundred years before the invention of the aeroplane, Napoleon Bonaparte used unmanned hot air balloons for surveillance purposes.

During World War One, the first aerial drone of the aviation age was invented by Englishman Archibald M. Low. Known as Aerial Target, or AT for short, the aircraft was designed as a remote controlled plane with an explosive warhead. A series of technical problems hampered its progress and the project was abandoned. 

World War II

Germany, however, would recognize the possibilities of Low’s technology. During World War Two, the V1, which looked very like a small plane, was a guided missile that was used in the bombing of London. The Germans went a step further with the V2, which was an unmanned rocket. The V2 was also used to bomb London, but was twice as big as the V1.

A few years before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, a Remote Piloted Vehicle was successfully tested by the British, as its interest in unmanned aircraft was revived. To be known as RPVs, English actor Reginald Denny was one of the driving forces behind this technology. RPVs were used in the Second World War for defensive and offensive purposes by the British, but it was after the War and during the Cold War that drone development really began in earnest in the US. America had previously experimented building drones from World War One onwards with little success.

History of drones - Jindivik 103 UAV
Jindivik 103 UAV – Boscombe Down Aviation Museum, Old Sarum, Wiltshire
The Dawn of the Drone: From the Back-Room Boys of World War One
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The Cold War

With the US and Soviet Union building up its nuclear arsenals in the years after the Second World War, there was a keenness, by both sides, to discover just how powerful they really were. The US became adept at making unmanned aircraft and, in 1951, a prototype of the Ryan Firebee was the first of many successful US Unmanned Airplane Vehicles (UAVs) to be completed. UAVs would later also be known as drones. 

It was after US pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in 1960, in his U2 spy plane, that the American Government focussed more on using unmanned surveillance aircraft. When America entered the Vietnam War in 1963, drones were used right at the beginning of America’s involvement in the conflict. Notably, the US refused to confirm or deny that they were using drones – no doubt with the Soviets in mind. 

Other countries began to develop their own drones, with Israel being one of the first to do so, when using them in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Drones were also used in the 1991 Gulf War. 

Today, drones are seen as a way of gathering information and hitting enemy targets, without risking the lives of aircrew. They are also criticized, in some quarters, for being inaccurate and killing civilians. Aerial drones are, though, likely to be used more and more in the years ahead. When drones are seen as a sure way of attacking an enemy without endangering aircrew or civilians, then manned aircraft may become increasingly obsolete in modern warfare. 

History of drones - military use
An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Lt. Col. Scott Miller on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)
Drones: An Illustrated Guide to the Unmanned Aircraft That are Filling Our Skies
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History of Drones and Aerial Photography

Capturing the ‘bird’s-eye’ view has been a driving ambition for many throughout the course of history. For artists, the driver has been seeing human endeavour from a new perspective, whilst others have seen commercial or military advantage in securing the unique overview which only aerial photography can provide.

Balloons and platforms

The earliest recorded instance of aerial photography dates to 1858 when balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, also a keen photographer, developed an interest in mapping and surveying by photographic means. Tournachon managed to produce some photographs of Petit-Becetre, a French village – though no copies of this feat survive. The process employed a tethered balloon suspended at a height of 80 metres, and also demanded the services of a fully equipped onboard darkroom. Others, like meteorologist E. D. Archibald in 1882, used kites to capture unique photographic images, whilst an intrepid few scaled precarious high platforms, or experimented with the deployment of camera-toting rockets and carrier pigeons. 

The Great War

Flight and photography advanced towards each other at the dawn of the twentieth century: The Kodak Brownie box camera appeared in February, 1900, followed soon afterwards by the historic flight of the Wright brothers in December 1903. However, the advent of the 1914-18 World War brought a more ominous incentive for the development of aerial reconnaissance. Aerial photos rapidly displaced the earlier drawings of airborne military observers, and camera designs were soon adapted to meet new military demands. As the Great War drew to a close, Sherman M. Fairchild’s lens fitted with an internal shutter made its first appearance – an innovation destined to influence aerial camera design for half a century.

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From Above: The Story of Aerial Photography (150 Years of Breathtaking Imagery)
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Aviation’s photo pioneers

Like the fast-expanding aviation business, commercial aerial photography got off the ground quickly. Launched in 1919, the UK’s Aerofilms Ltd, based in Edgware, was the first-ever specialist aerial-photography company and secured lucrative contracts around the world. Aerofilms began mapping and surveying in the 1920s, moving on to work with the Ordnance Survey in the 1930s. In the US, Fairchild began developing aircraft for high-altitude surveying and by 1935 had perfected a method using twin synchronised cameras at 23,000 feet for mapping purposes. Just 12 months later, Fairchild’s survey aircraft were operating at 30,000 feet. 

WWII innovation 

Once again, military conflict sparked new developments, and in 1938 von Fritsch, Chief of the German General Staff observed: ‘The nation with the best photo reconnaissance will win the next war.’ Many German-inspired technologies emerged, together with advances in methods of interpreting aerial photographic data. The 1941 sinking of Germany’s iconic battleship ‘Bismarck’ was assisted by aerial reconnaissance, as was the British bombing raid on Norwegian V2 rocket sites in 1943. In 1944, aerial photography was crucial to the success of the D-Day landings with US pilots deploying the new Trimetrigon camera for detailed mapping of coastal defences. 

Giant leaps in aerial photography 

Post-war, aerial photography continued to develop with renewed emphasis on commercial, non-military applications. The first space photos were taken in 1946 using cameras attached to V2 rockets, and ‘Cold War’ aerial surveillance advanced with the first reconnaissance missions flown by Lockheed U-2s in 1954. The Russians took cameras into space aboard Sputnik-1 in 1957, heralding the arrival of satellite imagery. Fairchild also lived to witness his cameras become standard issue on US Apollo spacecraft, and later being employed to map the moon’s surface. By this time, digital camera technologies included sensors, colour-infrared- and multispectral range techniques. 

History of Aerial Photography and Archaeology: Mata Hari's glass eye and other stories
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  • 304 Pages - 10/31/2011 (Publication Date) - Historic England Publishing (Publisher)

Robotic eyes in the skies

Contemporary aerial photography uses digital resources, GPS navigation, and gyro-stabilised cameras. It is also established as the primary means of capturing high-resolution images for a host of commercial and military purposes. Advances in unmanned flight technologies, together with the falling price of computers and software, have seen drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) become commercially available. Furthermore, as powerful microsystems and smart technologies rapidly evolve, drones and UAVs are allowing increasing numbers of photographers to fly cameras. Stunning aerial images are becoming commonplace and are redefining the scope and application of aerial photography. 

Where once an aerial view could only be obtained after a great deal of effort and expense, nowadays this feat can be achieved quickly, easily – and remarkably cheaply. In addition, more views of real-life action can be achieved from a greater variety of perspectives, and almost as easily as taking holiday snaps. Such autonomy now allows individuals to offer professional aerial-photographic services in a range of commercial fields seeking to obtain aerial overviews more cheaply, for example in mapping and surveying applications, alongside industries such as agriculture where falling costs now allow aerial-reconnaissance tools to be employed for an ever-expanding range of tasks.

Electric Airplanes and Drones: A History
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  • 314 Pages - 09/20/2018 (Publication Date) - McFarland & Company (Publisher)