photos of three drones, each from a different stage in history

Drones are a hot topic here in the United States. From the military, to corporations, to the average consumer, everyone seems to be hopping on the unmanned aerial vehicle train. One question may cross your mind: when did this drone mess all start? It actually goes back a lot further than you might expect.

One thing needs to be said first: the actual timeline of drones is contested. You can find many arguments online about dates and what a “drone” strictly refers to, and it’s all topped off with government classification funny business. That being said, the timeline I’m creating here isn’t meant to be definitive. You could easily write books on the history of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), but I’m pretty sure my editor wouldn’t let me do that here. So stick around as we look at an abridged history of the UAV, from its unbelievable start to its modern incarnation. 

The first UAV ever was created: black and white photo of the Kettering Bug -- drones
The first UAV, the Kettering Bug, invented in 1917.

The year is 1917: Woodrow Wilson is the president of America, World War I is raging on, and video games won’t be invented for another 41 years, so what’s a person to do for fun? Well, if your name is Charles F. Kettering, then you would have passed the time by inventing the first drone. That’s right – 100 years ago the first UAV ever was created. Adorably named the Kettering Bug (KB), this bad boy was made of paper mâché and cardboard. You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m just being factual.

It was different time, and we have different building requirements now. Today, we use steel and plastic; back then, all you needed was material barely fit for a kite, and a double serving of American spirit. Once those two requirements were met, the government would say, “Looks great, strap a bomb on it!” As you may have guessed, the KB had minimal success and the technology didn’t really carry over.

The next part of the timeline gets a little murky, because the government likes to keep secrets. Our next drone was revealed in 1917 and was made by Elmer Ambrose Sperry, the inventor of the gyroscope. While it’s unknown which year Sperry’s “air torpedo” was first created, its failure is well documented. Once again made for WWI, this UAV was a biplane that would be launched by catapult and then fly down at its target. It was a very short-lived program, and ended along with the war in 1918.

the Queen Bee drone -- drones
The de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee drone, invented in the 1930s.

The next major leap in drone technology came from the British Royal Navy in the 1930s in the form of the de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee (not Beyoncé, but almost as impressive). The improved version of the Fairey Queen, the Queen Bee was the first ever full-sized, reusable UAV. If that sounds impressive for the time, that’s because it was. It was controlled on the ground using a rotary dial, and each number correlated to a different command (such as “turn left” or “pitch up”). The transmitter for these commands was the size of a van, but at least this one wasn’t made out of paper mâché.

In essence, the Queen Bee was the start of what we now consider to be the drone. In fact, it was even the source of the word. After witnessing a test of the Bee, American Admiral William Harrison Standley revitalized American efforts to create a pilot-less aircraft. It’s in the documents surrounding Standley’s project that the term “drone” is first used, and it clearly caught on

Fast forward to the distant future of February 4th, 2002, when the world is changed forever. The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used a drone strike for the first time ever, conducted with an armed Predator drone as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It took almost a century, but the ultimate unmanned war machine was revealed. As anyone who pays attention to American politics knows, this starts a new era of history. 

Predator drone at dusk with crew performing maintenance on runway
Maintenance workers perform last minute preflight checks on an RQ-1 Predator before a mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

From then until now, the term “drone strike” has been frequently on the tongues of media and government officials alike. And that, friends, is where our history lesson ends. I could try and go into the recent stories of drones, but there’s not nearly enough time. The modern era of drones has been a rapidly growing hydra of war, commerce, and leisure. More excitingly (or maybe nerve-rackingly), we get to see where the technology goes from here on. The future of UAVs is unknown, mysterious, and sometimes scary. But no matter where tomorrow takes us, we will always remember that the first drone was made of paper, and that’s just silly.