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The Rise of Drones: How They Have Transformed Modern Military Warfare

OCAP - Blog #1Evolution of Drones in Military Warfare

OCTOBER Edition #2 – 10/17/2023



Imagine what the Wright brothers would have thought of a flying machine that had no pilot – at least not sitting in the aircraft.  Technology seems to push society into a new realm every few years in creating gadgets such as personal drones once priced as ‘luxuries’ into an affordable hobby for just about anyone.  That same technology has also continued to improve upon drone types that challenge both the political and ethical boundaries of warfare. Since the mid-1800s, militaries around the world have been utilizing drone technology for training, target practice, air strikes, bomb detection, surveillance, and even hostage negotiation to name just a few.


A Brief History of Drones

Drone technology entered our society during the mid-1800s in the form of balloons, aerial targets, and pilotless torpedoes.  The Austrian navy was one of the first to use incendiary balloons in their efforts to capture Venice in 1849 – a tactic which was also used by the Japanese against the United States during WWII.  While over 9000 Fu-Go balloon bombs were sent across the Pacific Ocean, less than 250 successfully reached the Pacific coast and even most of those failed to detonate.


Toward the end of the 19th century, Great Britain, France, and Russia were in competition for naval superiority.  During this buildup, Nicola Tesla designed an unmanned torpedo boat that could carry an explosive charge and be directed by a single low-frequency radio wave.   It’s first demonstration brought Tesla to patent his invention which he boasted would bring an end to the Spanish-American War.  The first attempt at a self-propelled drone as an aerial target was completed in 1916 by inventor A.M. Low, though it wasn’t until after World War I that the first pilotless fixed-wing torpedo was manufactured by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in Dayton, Ohio.


In 1935, actor and model-airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny became first civilian to design such a remotely-piloted aerial vehicle – one which he mass-produced through his company Reginald Denny Industries.  The drone was designed for soldiers’ target practice and was launched by catapult.  If it was not shot down during the target practice it would land by parachute at the end. He went on to produce the radio plane which he modified for the U.S. military in World War II.



The first VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicle) which resembles what most drone-enthusiasts fly today was first invented in 1920 by Etienne Omnichen.  It was created to resolve problems many helicopter pilots had with the tail rotors that counter-balanced the main rotor in early copter designs.    Inventors and militaries have since furthered their use for photography, public safety, security, and various environmental applications.  Having combined qualities of pitched (good for wind-resistance) and co-axial copters (having better hover stability), four-prop drones have become ideal for aerial photography.



World War II ushered in the development of jet-propelled drones which led to the production of unmanned fixed-wing aircraft in an attempt to reduce the incidence of pilot deaths over hostile territory.  While most all of these missions were classified by the U.S. government for over a decade, they paved the way for weaponized drones in the 1970s where missiles were fitted as payloads along with camera modules that could gather intelligence. 


Drone aircraft performed duties involving target-spotting for manned U.S. bombers, jamming North Vietnamese radars, and dropping propaganda leaflets among other missions.  One such example is the Ryan Model 147 known as a “SAM sniffer”.  1,106 of these were used in over 3,400 missions and flew until they crashed or were shot down.


21st Millenium

Drones took on further more complex roles after the turn of the century, conducting disaster relief and border surveillance.  Today, reconnaissance drones are currently used in the

Ukraine War against Russia to spy on Russian positions and identify targets that are then hit by artillery and mortar fire. Others are attack drones that drop ordnance or explode on impact, killing suspects of terrorism, Russian soldiers hiding in trenches, blowing up tanks on the front lines, taking out artillery units hidden in heavy vegetation cover, and destroying  stockpiles of munitions and key supply lines.  At the start of this war, there existed only seven drone manufacturers, but now there are over 80 within Ukraine.  Skyeton – a major manufacturer of drones in Ukraine – engineered drones (Raybirds) that can fly over 30 hours at altitudes exceeding 16,000 feet.


By 2010, more than thirty countries and multiple terrorist groups possess weaponized drones that execute electronic attack, drone strikes, suppression or destruction of enemy air defense, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, and derivations of these themes.



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