Complete History of Drones: From 1849 To 2023


Unmanned aircraft vehicles, including drones, have a much more extensive history than most realize. While there’s a relatively newer buzz around drones, they’ve been around since the beginning of the 20th century.

While drones were often used at first for military tactics, they’re now popular for recreational flying and commercial use. 

Reflecting on the progress of drones offers many interesting insights, much like our guide on drone statistics and facts. In this article, we dive into the detailed history of drones. Find out about key milestones of unmanned aircraft below. 

When Were Drones Invented?

The first aerial assault in 1849, balloon bombing on Venice

Drones are by no means a new invention. The first recorded UAS used in warfare was in July 1849. The Austrians used the UAS during a balloon attack on Venice. They leveraged over 200 balloons to drop into the city with a time fuse. This was the beginning of drone technology in warfare. 

The First Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 

Quadcopters represent a more similar conception of modern drones. The first known quadcopter was crafted in 1907. Brother Louis Brequet and Jacques Breguet worked together with Professional Charles Richet. The first drone was an exciting invention, but nowhere near finalized. At the time, it only flew two feet off the ground and required four men to steady it. 

Overview of Drone History: Development of Unmanned Aircrafts

Drone History: Development of Unmanned Aircrafts
  • 1907-The First Quadcopter: The Brequet brothers invented the first quadcopter, Gyroplane No.1. this unmanned aerial vehicle could lift itself up about two feet off the ground. 
  • 1915- The First Introduction of Aircrafts in War: During the First World War, militaries introduced aircraft. The U.S. Army leveraged aerial torpedos, known as cruise missiles, as a radio controlled aircraft.
  • 1920- The First Stable Quadcopter: In 1920, the first quadcopters could take off and land. Etienne Omnichen invented the first stable quadcopter that successfully took flight. 
  • 1939- The First Military Drones: Throughout the war, drones continued to develop. In 1939, the U.S. created the first remote controlled aircraft known as “Radioplane OQ-2.” 
  • 1956- Convertawings Quadrotor: The Convertawings Quadrotor took flight in March of 1956 and successfully flew many times. It had four rotors in an “H” shape. However, the military did not order many so the project ended. 
  • 1973- First Israeli Military UAV (Mastiff): “Mastiff” was created in 1973, and was an advanced UAV for the time. It was an Israeli UAV with highly advanced electronic equipment. It could transmit high-quality video and carry up to 10kg payload for up to 50km. The Israeli used it during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. 
  • 1986- RQ2 Pioneer UAV: The US and Israel teamed up to create the RQ2 Pioneer in 1986. It was a mid-size reconnaissance drone, the next iteration of the Tadiran Mastiff used by the US Navy. 
  • 1994- General Atomics MQ-1 Predator: The Pentagon signed a contract with General Atomics in 1994 to create better, quieter drones. It cost around $40 million per system for the MQ-1 Predator. 3 supervisors operate it remotely. The U.S. leveraged this drone for air force tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
  • 2001- First Armed Drone Strikes: In 2000, the U.S. flew the predator (with only surveillance cameras)over Afghanistan to search for Osama Bin Laden. Following that, the Pentagon granted approval to attach Hellfire missiles to the UAS. 
  • 2006- First Commercial Drones: In 2006, people began using drones for commercial purposes. At first, companies used them to spray pesticides on farms and examine pipelines. 
  • 2010-Introduction of Parrot AR. Drone: The parrot AR Drone is controlled with a smartphone. It’s a consumer quadcopter, which operators can use an Android or iOS device to control. 
  • 2013- DJI Domination of Commercial Drones:  DJI came to dominate the drone space, including the consumer drone market. The drone developers founded it back in 2006. Frank Wang t Hong Kong University created DJI, which now rakes in $1 billion in revenue. 
  • 2014- Amazon Drone Delivery: As drone usage grew, Amazon also became interested in using drones for delivery. 
  • 2018- The First Passenger Drones: In 2017, Ehang 184 came out- the first pilotless passenger aircraft. It’s a self-driving drone that does not need a pilot and relies on 8 electric motors. Pilotless military drones marked a major advancement in military UAV technology.
  • 2020- Drones During the Pandemic: During the unprecedented times of 2020, drones played a major role in pandemic alleviation. Agencies used them to send disinfection and medical supplies. 

Military Drones: Drones in World War I and Interwar Period

During World War I, militaries leveraged unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft. A well-known drone from that era was The Kettering Bug. it was an unmanned biplane that had a bomb attached. It flew a pre-set route to a target. After being programmed, the drone then flew alone. 

The world's first drone; The Kettering Bug

At the same time, many militaries created successful drone prototypes. After the war ended, the “Bug” took its first flight. It was also the beginning of the modern cruise missile. At the same time, the military rocket was perfected. They determined it was a better way to deliver explosives. 

Drones in World War II and Technological Progress

When World War II broke out in the late 19030s, drones were still in their early stages. The Navy often used them for target training. Overall though, militaries leveraged advanced technology for the time. This stage set the stage for modern drone use in wars. The drones included TV cameras that send images back to the control center, much like modern drones.

Launch of a De Havilland Queen Bee seaplane L5984

Overall, drones were used for several military purposes. The British military leveraged them, as well as the United States and other countries. Armed drones were used in the Vietnam war, in addition to both world wars. A few common for radio controlled aircrafts in wars include:

  • Search and rescue operations 
  • Drones striking targets
  • Aerial torpedo
  • Disaster relief

The Evolution of Drones: Key Developments

The early 1900s is when drone evolution truly spiked. This century sparked many exciting developments including the first successful remote-controlled aircraft, the “Aerial Target’ from the British in 1917. Other notable advancements included:

  • Increased use for military operations
  • Consumer drone technologies 
  • Drone racing 

Adding Cameras to Drones

Civilians first began using drones in the 1980s. While drones often had cameras already, they had limited photography capabilities because of their quality and battery life. The cameras had been for surveillance rather than filmmaking. 

However, as more civilians began to use drones, the camera options improved. Better batteries were more accessible, and consumer technology entered the drone space. The drone camera improvements made them better for filming, but also for a variety of purposes. They also became a viable option for monitoring floods, fires, and more. 

Popularizing Public Drone Use in the Consumer Drone Market

At first, drones were primarily used for military technology. But, in the early 2010s, drone became more popular for use in the general public. The Parrot A.R. Drone was created for recreational use and it entered the consumer space. Consumers quickly turned to UAVs, enjoying them for many uses. Some of the ways that people used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) include:

  • Sports and racing
  • Photography 
  • Wildlife conservation
  • Emergency response 
  • Environment monitoring 
CES 2010: Parrot A.R Drone

Drone Commercialization in the Late 20th Century

Drone technology continued to improve for both military drones and civilian drone pilots. The late 1900s was filled with drone advancements, increasing pilotless aircraft use in several industries. The first driver of drone evolution was military application. For example, the Aerosonde was a drone specifically created to monitor the environment and meteorology. 

A few other important changes that ignited commercial drone use include:

  • Improvements in computer technology 
  • Reduced cost of manufacturing drones
  • Shrinking the size of various drone components (cameras, motors, etc). 

Along with those advancements, additional use cases rose. Aerial photography became more practical as well. The late 20th century laid the foundation for widespread commercial drone use. 

The Rise of Quadcopters and Multicopters

Flying drone in the sky

Quadcopters and multicopters have several rotors. The multiple rotors allow them to hover while ensuring flying stability. This design has been instrumental in the development of modern drones.

In 2006, the Paparazzi Project created an open-source autopilot system for drones. DJI also introduced the Phantom series for professional photos and videos. Then, in 2010, a French tech company produced the AR Drone. The AR drone was a consumer drone controlled via tablet or smartphone. It sparked the evolution of drones, particularly multi copters. 

Drone Laws Throughout the Years

2006 is when drones became legal for recreational use, not just military operations. In 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced drone laws to protect the rights and privacy of others. They crafted regulations to control civilian airspace and guide the use of unmanned vehicles to ensure drone safety. 

For example, the FAA does not allow civilians to use weaponized drones. Armed drones are illegal, and equipping an unmanned aerial vehicle with a weapon is a crime. 

The FAA drone laws also made it difficult to commercialize drones, requiring a commercial drone permit. Even so, professionals and amateurs use drones for a variety of tasks now. Modern federal drone laws include requirements for commercial and recreational drone operations

Future Drone Trends and Innovations

Exploring the journey of drones over time, it’s fascinating to peek into the upcoming drone development. 

Imagine drones that can fly on their own, using super smart computer programs. These drones will be really good at flying around even in tricky places.  They could even work together like a team, which we can call Swarm technology

Drones are gearing up to be heroes in tough situations. They’ll be ready to jump in for Environmental Monitoring, checking on things like pollution and wildlife. When disasters strike, drones can respond quickly, like high-tech emergency helpers.

Drones could even become like taxis in the sky! Imagine hopping on a drone and flying above the city – that’s Urban Air Mobility. It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it could become a reality soon. Drone delivery may continue to develop as well, changing the way restaurants and stores operate. 

All this cool stuff is happening because drones are getting smarter with AI (Artificial Intelligence) it’s like giving the drones a brain of their own. They’re becoming more independent and can make decisions on their own, facilitating a wide range of applications. 

As we learn about the history of drones, we’re also getting ready for a future where drones do even more amazing things. It’s like watching a sneak peek of a fantastic movie about drones, and we can’t wait to see what happens next!

Drone History: Final Words

The history of drones has been a fascinating journey marked by significant milestones and impacts. Starting in the early 20th century, drones evolved from military tools to versatile assets in various sectors.

Drones revolutionized warfare and introduced aerial torpedoes during World War I. Their development continued, leading to modern quadcopters. Their capabilities advanced to include aerial photography and disaster response.

Looking ahead, the future of drones holds even greater potential. Swarm technology is set to enable collaborative flights. Urban air mobility may allow drone taxis and innovative delivery systems. Advanced AI will grant drones autonomy for independent decision-making and diverse applications.

Reflecting on this transformative journey, drones have progressed from basic prototypes to intelligent machines that are reshaping our world. Their evolution promises an exciting and impactful future.

For more educational guides and exciting updates about drones, check out our detailed drone blog today! 

FAQs About The History of Drones

Who invented the first drone?

Abraham Karem is noted as the designer of UAV predator drone technology. He designed fixed rotary-wing unmanned aircraft in 1995. UAVs were used prior only in war, but Karem revolutionized them with modern capabilities. 

When were drones first used in warfare?

Drones were first used in warfare in July 1849, during a balloon attack on Venice by the Austrians. Over 200 balloons were deployed for this early form of drone technology.

What is the significance of the Kettering Bug in drone history?

The Kettering Bug, an unmanned biplane with a bomb, was a notable drone from World War I. It flew a preset route to its target, marking a crucial step toward modern drone warfare.

When did drones become legal for recreational use?

Drones became legal for recreational use in 2006, expanding their applications beyond military operations and paving the way for widespread public usage.

What role did AI play in advancing drone capabilities?

AI (Artificial Intelligence) has significantly advanced drone capabilities by enabling autonomy and independent decision-making, allowing drones to perform various tasks with increased efficiency.

What impact did drones have during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Drones played a major role during the pandemic by assisting in pandemic alleviation efforts. They were used to deliver disinfection supplies and medical equipment, as well as monitor public spaces.

How did the introduction of consumer drones change the landscape?

The introduction of consumer drones, like the Parrot A.R. Drone and DJI’s products, popularized drone use among consumers. Consumers use drones for sports, photography, wildlife conservation, emergency response, environmental monitoring, and more. 

Photo of author
Rashida is a self-proclaimed gear-head and technical writer. Through her work, Rashida aims to highlight the limitless possibilities of drones in fields like photography, search & rescue, and environmental monitoring. When she's not writing, she travels the world playing women's soccer at a professional level.