We like to think that drones, or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), are a modern phenomenon but the reality is they predate manned flight–by a millennium or two! Kites were the first drone: flown in the air, unmanned, and controlled from the ground. The earliest evidence is from a cave painting in 9000BC in Indonesia. In common with most of man’s innovations, their use in military applications quickly followed their invention. Chinese general Han Xin (231BC-196BC) is said to have flown a kite above a besieged town to calculate the distance his army would have to tunnel to get under a city wall. And, just like today’s UAVs, kites were used for carrying weapons, communications, and reconnaissance, as late as the Second World War. Today we typically define a UAV or drone as a vehicle that is capable of the full flight envelope including directed flight to achieve a mission and intact landing for reuse. The development of large UAVs has been led by the military, with use cases ranging from target practice early on to reconnaissance, weapon carrying, and refuelling. Whilst civilian drones used to just be remote-controlled model aircraft, advances in battery technology, flight control computers, and connectivity have enabled an explosion in the use of drones–and with it an exponential increase in the number of uses and in the speed at which technology is advancing. The pace of development in both the civilian and military spheres makes it an exciting time full of opportunities to learn from one another. Here are just a few interesting areas of note:
1. Defence has Demonstrated Highly Complex Applications
Whilst the civil industry has long focussed on using small drones for little more than taking pictures; the defence industry has been deploying drones on long and complex missions. Their focus on the mission, and then building a system to achieve that mission, has led to everything from the Zephyr– which can stay aloft for months continuously–to Predator, which has an endurance of 40 hours and can deploy air to surface weapons. Whilst defence has the ongoing goal to reduce human involvement, the safety issues and human limitations have not been as significant in civilian use cases.