The history of aerial drones and unmanned aerial vehicles 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.
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.
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.