An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or uncrewed aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone. It is basically an aircraft without any human pilot, crew or passengers on board, and instead are either controlled by a person on the ground or autonomously via a computer program. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which include additionally a ground-based controller and a system of communications with the UAV. The flight of UAVs may operate under remote control by a human operator, as remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), or with various degrees of autonomy, such as autopilot assistance, up to fully autonomous aircraft that have no provision for human intervention.
UAVs were originally developed through the twentieth century for military missions too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for humans. As control technologies improved and costs fall, their use in the twenty-first century is rapidly finding many more applications. These include aerial photography, product deliveries, agriculture, policing and surveillance, infrastructure inspections, science, smuggling, and drone racing.
These stealth craft are becoming popular, not just for war and military purposes, but also for everything from wildlife and atmospheric research to disaster relief and sports photography. Drones are becoming the eyes and ears of scientists by surveying the ground for archeological sites, signs of illegal hunting and crop damage, and even zipping inside hurricanes to study the wild storms. You can rent a personal drone to soar above the horizon and snap a photo or video. Our news and features will cover developments in drone technologies, innovative uses for drones and how drone use will impact society.
The earliest recorded use of an unmanned aerial vehicle for warfighting occurred in July 1849, serving as a balloon carrier (the precursor to the aircraft carrier) in the first offensive use of air power in naval aviation. Austrian forces besieging Venice attempted to launch some 200 incendiary balloons at the besieged city. The balloons were launched mainly from land; however, some were also launched from the Austrian ship SNS Vulcano. At least one bomb fell in the city; however, due to the wind changing after launch, most of the balloons missed their target, and some drifted back over Austrian lines and the launching ship Vulcano.
Significant development of drones started in the early 1900s, and originally focused on providing practice targets for training military personnel. The earliest attempt at a powered UAV was A. M. Low's "Aerial Target" in 1916. Low confirmed that Geoffrey de Havilland’s monoplane was the one that flew under control on 21 March 1917 using his radio system. Other British unmanned developments followed during and after World War I leading to the fleet of over 400 de Havilland 82 Queen Bee aerial targets that went into service in 1935.
Nikola Tesla described a fleet of uncrewed aerial combat vehicles in 1915. These developments also inspired the construction of the Kettering Bug by Charles Kettering from Dayton, Ohio and the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane . Initially meant as an uncrewed plane that would carry an explosive payload to a predetermined target. The first scaled remote piloted vehicle was developed by film star and model-airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny in 1935.
World War II:
Development continued during World War I, when the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company invented a pilotless aerial torpedo that would explode at a preset time. In 1940 Denny started the Radio plane Company and more models emerged during World War II – used both to train antiaircraft gunners and to fly attack missions. Nazi Germany produced and used various UAV aircraft during the war, like the Argus as 292 and the V-1 flying bomb with a jet engine. After World War II the development continued in vehicles such as the American JB-4 (using television/radio-command guidance), the Australian GAF Jindivik and Teledyne Ryan Firebee I of 1951, while companies like Beechcraft offered their Model 1001 for the U.S. Navy in 1955. Nevertheless, they were little more than remote-controlled airplanes until the Vietnam War.
In 1959, the U.S. Air Force, concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory, began planning for the use of uncrewed aircraft. Planning intensified after the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 in 1960. Within days, a highly classified UAV program started under the code name of "Red Wagon". The August 1964 clash in the Tonkin Gulf between naval units of the U.S. and North Vietnamese Navy initiated America's highly classified UAVs (Ryan Model 147, Ryan AQM-91 Firefly, Lockheed D-21) into their first combat missions of the Vietnam War.
During the War of Attrition (1967–1970) the first tactical UAVs installed with reconnaissance cameras were first tested by the Israeli intelligence, successfully bringing photos from across the Suez Canal. This was the first time that tactical UAVs that could be launched and landed on any short runway (unlike the heavier jet-based UAVs) were developed and tested in battle.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel used UAVs as decoys to spur opposing forces into wasting expensive anti-aircraft missiles. After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a few key people from the team that developed this early UAV joined a small startup company that aimed to develop UAVs into a commercial product, eventually purchased by Tadiran and leading to the development of the first Israeli UAV.
In 1973, the U.S. military officially confirmed that they had been using UAVs in Southeast Asia (Vietnam). Over 5,000 U.S. airmen had been killed and over 1,000 more were missing or captured. The USAF 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing flew about 3,435 UAV missions during the war at a cost of about 554 UAVs lost to all causes. In the words of USAF General George S. Brown, Commander, Air Force Systems Command, in 1972, "The only reason we need (UAVs) is that we don't want to needlessly expend the man in the cockpit. Later that year, General John C. Meyer, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command, stated, "we let the drone do the high-risk flying ... the loss rate is high, but we are willing to risk more of them ...they save lives!"
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile batteries in Egypt and Syria caused heavy damage to Israeli fighter jets. As a result, Israel developed the IAI Scout as the first UAV with real-time surveillance. The images and radar decoys provided by these UAVs helped Israel to completely neutralize the Syrian air defenses at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War, resulting in no pilots downed. In Israel in 1987, UAVs were first used as proof-of-concept of super-agility, post-stall-controlled flight in combat-flight simulations that involved tailless, stealth technology-based, three-dimensional thrust vectoring flight control, and jet-steering.
With the maturing and miniaturization of applicable technologies in the 1980s and 1990s, interest in UAVs grew within the higher echelons of the U.S. military. In the 1990s, the U.S. DoD gave a contract to AAI Corporation along with Israeli company Malat. The U.S. Navy bought the AAI Pioneer UAV that AAI and Malat developed jointly. Many of these UAVs saw service in the 1991 Gulf War. UAVs demonstrated the possibility of cheaper, more capable fighting machines, deployable without risk to aircrews. Initial generations primarily involved surveillance aircraft, but some carried armaments, such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, that launched AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles.
CAPECON was a European Union project to develop UAVs, running from 1 May 2002 to 31 December 2005.
As of 2012, the USAF employed 7,494 UAVs – almost one in three USAF aircraft. The Central Intelligence Agency also operated UAVs. By 2013 at least 50 countries used UAVs. China, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Turkey, and others designed and built their own varieties. The use of drones has continued to increase. Due to their wide proliferation, no comprehensive list of UAV systems exists.
The development of smart technologies and improved electrical power systems led to a parallel increase in the use of drones for consumer and general aviation activities. As of 2021, quadcopter drones exemplify the widespread popularity of hobby radio-controlled aircraft and toys, however the use of UAVs in commercial and general aviation is limited by a lack of autonomy and new regulatory environments which require line-of-sight contact with the pilot.
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