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A brief history of drone technology

26 March 2021 •

By: David Technology

Drones have had a meteoric rise in the consumer and commercial electronics spaces in the last decade - that much should be clear to anyone who doesn’t share an abode with Patrick Star - disrupting industries as different as large, industrial mining operations, all the way through to being used on movie sets to get those awe-inspiring sweeping shots of a scenic background, or even a bowling alley

This is the first of a two-part blog series about drone technology. In today’s post, we’ll look at the history of drone technology. 

Before we get into where we are today and where we might be tomorrow, we first need to look at where we’ve come from. When one thinks of the word “drone”, the immediate two thoughts that come to mind are either those of the military variety or those of the standard consumer quadcopter.

However, drones are not limited exclusively to these domains. In fact, the term “drone” is not even limited to flight systems, with it being applicable to virtually any remotely-piloted or autonomously controlled robotic device (eg. a bomb disposal robot can also be called a drone) although we will only be looking at the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) variety in this post.

The generally accepted first use of a drone dates back to 1849, when Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons stuffed with explosives. Austrian forces, who were besieging Venice at the time, launched around 200 of these incendiary balloons over the city, although only 1 found its mark due to strong winds. This event, unbeknownst to the military minds who thought up the idea, would pave the way to some of the most advanced technology available to humanity almost 200 years later.

Since the events over Venice in 1849, drones have slowly progressed in the military space. First as target dummies for anti-aircraft systems, all the way through to the highly advanced, but just as contentious, weapons platforms of today. With the miniaturisation of technology and Moore’s law continuing to sustain itself, micro-drones are also an active area of interest for militaries around the world - with the US army having recently commissioned the design and development of pocket-sized drones.

Drones first started deviating from the military space into domestic use in 2006, with the FAA in the USA issuing a certificate of authorisation to US Border Control to allow drones to be used for border patrol purposes. This followed requests in 2005 for drones to be made use of during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which was a significant milestone in the development of UAV technologies for emergency situations.


Several years later, in 2013, Jeff Bezos of Amazon announced a plan to use commercial drones for delivery activities, a task which was completed successfully in December 2016 in Cambridge, England and then in March 2017 in California, and is a service which is still being actively developed today.

Drones only really got their breakthrough popularity in the consumer space in 2015, however, as the must-have Christmas present for the year. They have exploded since then, with the estimated size of the global drone market in 2020 hitting $100 billion (of which approximately $20 billion is in the consumer space), with only larger numbers expected in the future. 

This technology is so popular now, that drone racing leagues have become a spectator sport, with prize pools of up to $1million. 

In next week’s article we will look at how drone technology has disrupted the agriculture, search and rescue and space exploration industries. Keep an eye out for part two! 

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26 March 2021
By: David

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