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A Brief History of Drones (aka UAVs)

by Dave Elliott
A Brief History of Drones (aka UAVs)

A Brief History of Drones (aka UAVs)

When it comes to “boys and their toys”, one the most impressive and controversial in recent years is the automated drone. In official circles these are known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) – or to the rest of us, the ‘flying robot’. What other toy could threaten the security of one of the world’s most highly protected buildings, aka the White House, by outsmarting the Secret Service’s radar system to crash land on the South Lawn early last year? Yep, true story.

In fact, most UAVs were originally designed for military attack rather than to line the shelves of toy stores. Here’s an in-depth look at this ultimate gadget to explore the background of their dark and mysterious origins …

The First Drones of War

A drone is basically any type of aircraft, regardless of size, that doesn’t have an on-board passenger or pilot. When it comes to warfare, this offers an obvious tactical advantage in terms of minimising fatalities. Despite this, UAVs were first dismissed as unreliable, expensive toys and only saw relatively limited use during the post-World War II period.

However, this attitude changed significantly after the Israeli Air Force’s coordinated use of unmanned aircrafts in 1982 resulted in a devastating attack over Syria – sparking the beginning of a new paradigm in warfare. The US military has since become the largest proponent of tactical drones. But we’re not just talking about big expensive gadgets!

The New York Times article “War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs”, published a few years back, shows just how diverse the Pentagon’s investment in UAVs has become, with indoor flight labs or ‘micro-aviaries’ commissioned to build miniaturised unmanned drones the size of ‘insects and birds’. Don’t let their size deceive you – these pocket-sized pieces might look sweet buzzing around, but not so much when you find out they can fire missiles or spy on rebel activities with the use of hi-tech sensors and micro-cameras.

How Drones became the Ultimate Gadget

While this all sounds very James Bond, let’s take a step back from explosions for a moment to revel in the sheer gadgetry glory these tiny technologies can bring on a consumer-friendly level. Smaller drones, such as the well-known quadcopters design, increased in popularity following Vijay Kumar’s infamous TED talk: ‘Robots that fly … and cooperate.

As the UPS Foundation Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Assistant Director for Robotics and Cyber Physical Systems at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kumar certainly knows his robots. For an insight into the wonders of coordinated swarms, musical performances and the future of robotics, take a look at his YouTube channel: TheDmel.

Gone are the days when you need to be a member of the Pentagon to own one. If you fancy taking to the skies to cruise around the local park or want to pull off mid-air manoeuvres over your neighbours garage, pop into your local toy store. There are plenty of models on offer, like the X12S “nano” micro-quadcopter, barely seven centimetres wide, it’s a gyro-stabilised flying machine, capable of performing a full flip while in flight. Other drones are readily available with capabilities more worrying for the men in black than back-flips, such as Wi-Fi-enabled cameras with a live aerial video feed direct to smartphones, enabling real-time footage (aka reconnaissance).

No Drone Zones

So when you consider how developed the commercial and private UAV market has become, the Pentagon might be justified in feeling some concern about America’s favourite new national security asset turning rogue on its maker. Despite US governmental measures regarding registration policies and ‘No Drone Zones’ in Washington, it’s still entirely possible that one could find its way back onto the South Lawn at any point.

The White House’s radar system might be designed to detect flying objects like planes and missiles, but the sensors are effectively rendered useless when it comes to miniaturised drones such as those developed in the micro-aviaries – or even the standard, two-foot wide quadcopters, like the one that made it through last year. To increase the sensitivity would mean endless false alarms with every passing bird or swaying tree.

Last year’s incident raised questions and, coincidentally, came a mere couple of days after the Department of Homeland Security held a conference in Arlington County, Virginia, on the dangers recreational drones pose to the nation. While this might sound a tad dramatic, strap on some form of chemical or biological weaponry and you have a very different story!

But it’s not all weapons and war … If you find that you and your Syma X8W Quadcopter RC are a match made in gadget heaven, then why not set your sights in the direction of Vijay Kumar’s advanced manoeuvres? Balancing tricks with glasses of water, assisting in scenes of natural disaster, playing an orchestra of instruments – this is impressive stuff.

If that’s not impressive enough, how about the 2012 world premiere of the Ars Electronica Futurelab, held in Austria, which featured a light display generated by 49 quadcopters in an outdoor-formation-flight. The LED-equipped quadcopters, referred to as ‘Spaxels’ (space pixels), combine to form a three-dimensional drone swarm drawing figures of light in the sky. And if this was done in 2012, just think what they can do now…!

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