What is a Drone?
If it isn’t a bird or a plane, chances are it’s a drone. Drones are the favorite topic of many media outlets, conspiracy theorists and military-tech gurus. But what are they, really?
A drone- or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)- is a pilotless plane that can be flown by remote control or can navigate a preprogrammed route all on its own.
While drones have been in the news frequently in the past several years, they’re actually nothing new. This military technology dates back to World War I, when inventors in the U.S. and the U.K. started building prototypes for radio-controlled aircraft that could deploy aerial torpedoes to marine targets.
But these early battlefield UAVs were quickly repurposed as training tools in the years of peace leading up to World War II. In 1931, Great Britain built the Fairey Queen, an RC aircraft used as a target drone that helped train anti-aircraft crews. The British later developed another model, the DH.82B Queen Bee, from which the name “drone” is believed to have evolved.
In the 1930s, the U.S. Navy and Army both purchased their first UAVs, the OQ-1, OQ-2 and TDD-1 target drones. These rudimentary vehicles were inexpensive and looked a bit like souped-up toy airplanes. But they provided the military with a platform with which to practice fight tactics as well as test the more advanced equipment of future drones.
The emergence of the next generation of drones in the 1950s started some new trends in UAV technology, including the use of automatically piloted drones for long-range reconnaissance missions. These drones were the first to use stealth technologies.
Battlefield UAVs, such as the U.S.’s Predator drone, are the descendants of these first reconnaissance UAVs. Predators, which were first developed in the 1990s, are stealth flyers equipped with an array of sensors, radars and weapons that allow them to fly deep into enemy territory without being detected.
Predators are unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) controlled by a pilot interacting with a computer system from a remote location. In a setup that is similar to a flight simulation game, pilots see what their aircraft sees through a computer screen.
Remote human pilots play less of a role for newer drones. NASA’s Global Hawk drone, for example, is so sophisticated that it practically flies itself. However, Hawks do need to be constantly monitored and reprogramed by pilots.
And just as the U.S. Army and other militaries continue to train modern pilots in the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) so too do they continue to stockpile these useful tools. The U.S. currently has over 4,000 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in operation both domestically and overseas.
According to the Army’s “Roadmap for UAS,” the U.S. military plans to focus the future development of drones around several key areas. Their first priority is in reconnaissance and surveillance, especially the development of drones that can sniff out chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons both inside and outside of U.S. borders.
Drones could also be used to provide supplies for troops on the ground, as well as to extract wounded troops from battle. The Army also states that it would like to expand its use of armed UASs in both close combat and strike attack scenarios.
And the military isn’t the only entity that’s interested in the novel application of UASs. Small drones capable of carrying several pounds of medicine or other goods could be used to deliver these products right to consumers’ doors in the near future, according to the CEO of Matternet, a drone-delivery startup.
Such Jetsonian delivery services would be possible with the use of smaller UAVs, like those built by hobbyists, which often have fully autonomous flight capabilities.
The U.S. is currently seeing a rise in the number of applications of licenses for such drones, which could also be used to examine the scenes of accidents, check traffic conditions and perform recon operations for firefighters and other emergency workers. [See also: Drones Large and Small Coming to U.S.]
The prevalence of drones might seem disconcerting to some, and their existence in the civilian world does draw attention to certain privacy and security issues. Though new legislation in the U.S. could make it necessary for those who own and operate drones to at least explain how they intend to use the data collected by these machines before obtaining a license.