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How it all began: the history of flying drones

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that are either controlled by an operator remotely, or they move along a predetermined route. Now these devices are at the peak of their popularity. One should not be surprised, because they can be used for entertainment, photography and video filming (including professional ones), military intelligence and monitoring industrial systems.

Drones are not new to the 21st century. The first prototypes appeared not even in the 20th, but in the 19th century, when the “digital” did not yet exist. What were the ancestors of modern drones and what can they do now?


The beginning of everything

If we talk about the drone as a device that is controlled remotely, then the first idea was presented by Nikola Tesla. The scientist did not just theorize, but registered a patent, which spoke about a vehicle controlled by radio waves. Tesla developed the concept of combat drones, which he believed could pacify the warlike spirit of nations and end wars through the threat of 'infallible and unlimited destructive power.'

This is how, according to Tesla, an unmanned combat ship could look

He demonstrated the world's first radio-controlled drone in 1898, in the pond of Madison Square Garden. Most of the ideas proposed by Tesla were further developed and led to the emergence of drones in their modern guise.



Evolution of an idea

One of the first such drones was the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, created in 1917. True, it did not have radio control; for flight along a given course, its creators tuned gyroscopes (there were two on board). There is practically no information about how all this worked. But there is a photograph of an automatic airplane.

Speaking of drones, don't forget about quadcopters, which are also far from new. The first prototypes (though manned) were developed back in the 20s of the last century. Two people worked on the creation of devices of this type at once. The first is the designer Georgy Botezat, who lived in the United States, and the French engineer Etienne Amichen. The idea of ​​creating an apparatus with four opposed propellers was in the air, so that two people independently worked on it at once is not surprising.

Copters of that time were able to participate only in test flights without further practical implementation. As it turned out, the systems have three main disadvantages: Very complex transmission, which must transmit torque from the engine to all rotors at once. She worked, but often broke.

The devices were in no way stabilized in the air, so the slightest breeze could disable the aircraft.

Too many propellers (Amishen suggested eight) plus insufficient maneuverability. So, the copter of Georgy Botezat could move more or less normally only if there was a wind of a certain direction and strength.

In 1982, radio-controlled drones developed by the Israelis came into play. They were used during the Lebanese War. IAI Scout and Tadiran Mastiff were the most commonly used. They were developed from scratch; they were no longer aircraft converted for autonomous flight. Their wingspan was no more than five meters, and their weight was about 100 kg. It was possible to reduce the size of drones thanks to the emergence and development of semiconductor electronics, which led to the miniaturization of both household and military equipment.

And then other countries, including the United States, began to produce ultra-modern military drones like the MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, capable of transmitting surveillance data in real time. Some models of such drones are also able to shoot at targets, moreover, with missiles.

From about the second half of the 20th century, such a direction as household radio-controlled drones began to develop actively. Initially, these were completely DIY-models, which were simulated aircraft. But then the business, seeing the demand for radio-controlled aircraft, took the initiative into their own hands.




The emergence of modern non-military drones

Experts believe that the era of modern non-military drones began in 2006. It was this year that the US Federal Aviation Administration approved small custom drone flights. The distribution was received not by household drones for entertainment, but by aircraft for scientific tasks and industry.

So, government organizations used such systems to track the spread of fires, study the situation at the epicenter of disasters (earthquakes, floods, etc.). Commercial companies monitored the condition of oil pipelines, crops and marine areas (monitoring the movement of schools of fish). Were used (and are still using) drones at a construction site, in geodesy and other areas.

Over time, custom drones have become more and more popular as entertainment for flight enthusiasts. From the outset, the RC drone market has split into two areas:

  • Full-fledged aircraft developed on a turnkey basis by companies;
  • Components (electronics, electric motors, etc.) that allow you to create DIY systems, completely custom drones.
  • Among the companies whose products became popular in the first case are Parrot, Gaui, DJI, Xaircraft, GoPro and others. In the second direction, the products of MultiWii, KaptainKuk, ArduCopter are popular. DIY enthusiasts are actively using Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi, etc.

    After the introduction of cameras in drones that transmit a video stream directly to a phone, video glasses or laptop, the popularity of personal UAVs skyrocketed.


    What's next?

    The future of drones is not limited to personal models. After multicopters became popular, their capabilities are actively explored by business:

  • Use at industrial facilities (safety, checking the condition of various units and pipelines),
  • Use in agriculture,
  • Cargo delivery,
  • Delivery of people.
  • Copters are also used in medicine, for example, for the quick delivery of necessary medicines. Recently, UPS announced the launch of a drone delivery of medicines and sample analyzes. True, so far the service works only in one US city - Raleigh (North Carolina). The drones will provide delivery along a specific route between WakeMed hospitals and medical centers.

    DHL has tried cargo delivery using drones back in 2013, now this practice is gradually becoming more widespread.




    Keeping pace with DHL and Amazon - in the same 2013 the company announced the Prime Air service (it works in a limited number of regions), which is positioned as the fastest way to deliver purchases. With its help, purchases are delivered within half an hour, which is at least four times faster than the fastest ground service Amazon Prime Now.

    Deliver (or rather, plan to deliver) using drones and people. For example, some companies, including Uber and Lyft, are developing air taxis. Other companies, including a startup from Saudi Arabia, are doing similar work.

    With AI technology evolving and battery capacity increasing, there is no doubt that drones will become smarter, more agile and more functional. They will become an integral part of many areas of our life: work and study, including transport, research, delivery of goods and everything else that I mentioned above.


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