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War isn’t waged like it once was. In Russia and Ukraine, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are shifting the tides of battle. And in the era of social media and mass communication, their use for combat, surveillance, logistics, and more has been well documented.


Recently, drones have dominated coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war, epitomized by last week’s media storm around Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow and the Kremlin. We take those capabilities for granted today – they’re just a feature of war. But plenty of active service members were alive during a time when today’s UAVs were inconceivable.


So, how did we get here? Believe it or not, drones, as we know them right now, originated more than a century ago during World War I and World War II. They certainly weren’t pretty. But for better or worse, war breeds innovation, and those wars laid the groundwork for today’s UAV technology.


Let’s take a look at some of those early drones and how they morphed into the high-flying, supersonic, undetectable UAVs permeating the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The Kettering Bug, one of the earliest combat drones, inspired the UAVs that flew in World War II and beyond. [Courtesy: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force]

A V-1 flying bomb was on display at the National Air and Space Museum. [Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution]

Let’s take a look at some of those early drones and how they morphed into the high-flying, supersonic, undetectable UAVs permeating the Russia-Ukraine conflict.





Before diving into the history books, we need to define what a drone is. For our purposes, we’ll be using a simple definition: a drone or UAV is any aircraft that does not have a human crew or pilot on board.

That includes balloons, which were responsible for the earliest unmanned flights.


The ancient Chinese used sky balloons or Kongming lanterns – now a symbol in Chinese culture – for military signaling. A few centuries later, the first hot-air balloon designed to carry people, developed by aviation pioneers the Montgolfier brothers, flew without a crew in 1783.


But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the first UAV was deployed in combat. That distinction belongs to the Austrians, who in 1849 bombed Venice, Italy, using explosive-laden balloons. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t very effective – many of them even blew back toward Austria due to wind.


Before long, engineers were looking at a new application for UAVs: aerial photography. The first surveillance drones didn’t emerge until the Vietnam War. But in 1858, French photographer Nadar was credited with taking the first photos from a balloon.


A few decades later, William Abner Eddy took photos from a flying kite, some of which survived. And around the same time, Alfred Nobel was thought to have taken photos from a “rocket camera,” though the history is disputed.


Yet all of these aircraft had a big problem: They were difficult or impossible to control. Nikola Tesla began laying the foundation for radio-controlled vehicles with his “robot boat” in 1898.


A technological marvel for its time, Tesla reportedly fooled a crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden into thinking they could control the vehicle by shouting.


Tesla never built a remote-control system for flight. But leading up to WWI, Britain’s Royal Aircraft Factory recognised the potential for radio-guided combat aircraft – and got to work.

U.S. Army engineers perform maintenance on a ‘Kettering Bug.’ [Courtesy: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force]

The DH.82B Queen Bee flew with a de Havilland Tiger Moth airframe. [Courtesy: BAE Systems]




The task of developing a radio-controlled airplane was left up to A.M. Low, an English engineer, physicist, and inventor commissioned by Britain’s Royal Flying Corps in 1914, just more than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight.


Considered by some to be “the father of radio guidance systems,” Low in 1916 developed a design called the Aerial Target (AT) that laid the foundation for drones as we know them today.


The following year, a monoplane made by Geoffrey de Havilland – who would go on to found the aircraft manufacturer sharing his last name – became the first AT model to fly under radio control. It was considered the first UAV flight.


While working on AT, Low survived two assassination attempts by the Germans, who saw the danger in his invention. The British military, however, eventually scrapped the program. Low later developed remote-controlled boats to counter submarines, though they were never deployed in the war.


The US also took notice of Low.


In 1917, at the behest of scientist-inventors Peter Hewitt and Elmer Sperry, the Navy began developing the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, or “Flying Bomb,” considered to be the earliest iteration of the modern cruise missile.

It was made by attaching automatic control gear to the Curtiss N-9 seaplane and eventually, after failed tests, a custom Curtiss airframe.


Launched from a catapult – and later a car – and controlled through gyro-stabilization technology created by Sperry, the aircraft never saw battle. But the US military now had UAVs on its mind.


Around the time the Flying Bomb was undergoing flight testing, the U.S. Army asked inventor and engineer Charles Kettering to design a “flying machine” that could hit targets from 40 miles away.


His design, the Kettering Aerial Torpedo – better known as the “Kettering Bug” – was groundbreaking despite never seeing combat. It was capable of carrying 180 pounds of explosives over 75 miles at a speed of 50 mph, making it an enigma of its time.


Using a guidance and control system developed by Sperry, the Bug was programmed to turn off its engine after a specified number of revolutions corresponding to the distance it needed to travel, improving its accuracy.

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