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Beyond the Battlefield: A History of Drones

Beyond the Battlefield: A History of Drones

By Luke Carothers

On the cutting edge of the AEC industry, UAS/V or drone technology has carved out a plethora of uses in helping engineers complete projects, transfer and collect data, and review progress.  Just as numerous, however, are the terms with which we use to describe what the technology actually is.  This is likely due to the rapidly changing conversation surrounding its uses.  As our uses for drone technology in the AEC industry grow, so does our definition for it.

So, where do we draw the defining line?  What history informs our understanding of the current climate?

Unsurprisingly, drone technology was born in a military theatre when Austrian soldiers attacked the City of Venice.  Hoping to stave off additional casualties, Austrian military engineers filled balloons with explosives and primed them with long copper wires that would extend to a controller for detonation.  These engineers planned to harness the wind and detonate the explosives after they had cleared the Venetian walls.  The results were mixed; there was a shift in the wind and many of the balloons detonated above their own lines.

What is surprising, however, is that these events preceded the Wright brother’s first successful manned flight by 61 years.  Their flight also had an impact on the development of unmanned aerial systems, giving form to flight and allowing the first pilotless winged aircraft to be developed in Britain: the Ruston Aerial Target.  Although the Aerial Target was based on designs by Nikola Tesla, it was little more than a flying bomb.  Drones had been developed in terms of form, but not necessarily in terms of function.

The development of UAS/V technology over the course of the 20th century is, again, largely a product of military application.  The United States military began using drones as a means to map and survey large portions of enemy territory without risking their pilots during the Korean War.  It is in this capacity that the technology began to show applications beyond the immediate military circumstances.

Although there was much public interest in things like remote-controlled model airplanes in the 1960s and 1970s, commercial drone usage didn’t begin until after the turn of the century when government agencies began using drones for things like disaster relief and fighting wildfires.  At the same time, civilian companies began using drones for simple tasks such as spraying chemicals, surveying land, and inspecting above-ground pipelines.

In 2006, drones were cemented as a commercially viable tool when the FAA issued their first commercial drones permit, but the adoption process was slow once again.  Averaging just two FAA commercial drone permits a year for eight years, it looked as if drones would be another forgotten fad.

After eight years of steady, low-level interest in commercially licensed drones, several large technology companies expressed interest in using drones as a means of delivering goods.  Most notable among these is Jeff Bezos and Amazon who outlined plans for a drone-based delivery system in 2013.  The result was an avalanche of drone permit applications.

This leads us to the current moment.  Many drone enthusiasts would tell you we are living in the golden age of drone technology and usage.  After averaging just two commercial drone permit applications a year until 2015, the FAA issued a whopping 1,000 permits in 2015.  That number more than tripled in 2016 when the FAA issued an additional 3,100 permits with the number growing each year.

The future of drone technology is uncertain but bright.  What started as a hobby for some is now a fully viable avenue of technological exploration.  As of 2020, many firms and government agencies are not just using drones to improve their business, drones are their business.  These firms and agencies have created specialized internal departments that not only use drones on their own projects, but license them out to other firms.

Like many technologies that can trace their roots to a military origin, UAS/V technology can be transformed from a tool of destruction to one of creation and preservation.  What started as a means to take is developing into a tool that has the power to give—to give life and to give new insight into the troubles that face our industry.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.