Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a class of aircraft that can fly without the onboard presence of a human pilot. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) consist of the aircraft component, sensor payloads, and a ground control station. UAVs can be controlled by onboard electronic equipment or via control equipment from the ground. When they are remotely controlled from the ground, they are called RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) and require reliable wireless communication.
The phrases UAV and drone are often used interchangeably. However, many in the industry believe there is a distinction to be made where, unlike drones, UAVs have autonomous flight capabilities.
Originally developed for military purposes, the proliferation of drone technology has led to them being used in a range of other applications:
- Aerial photography and videography
- Real estate photography
- Mapping and surveying
- Asset inspection
- Payload carrying
- Bird control
- Crop spraying
- Crop monitoring
- Multispectral/thermal/NIR cameras
- Live streaming events
- Roof inspections
- Emergency response
- Search and rescue
- Marine rescue
- Disaster zone mapping
- Disaster relief
- Monitoring poachers
- Product delivery
The history of unmanned aerial objects or vehicles dates back to ancient Greece and China. In 1783, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier hosted the first public demonstration of an unmanned aircraft, a hot-air balloon in Annonay, France. The first use of unmanned combat air vehicles occurred in 1849 when Austria attacked the Italian city of Venice using 200 unmanned balloons loaded with bombs fitted with timer devices, although they were mostly ineffective. The balloon bombs were invented by Austrian Austrian artillery lieutenant Franz von Uchatius.
During World War 1, multiple countries designed vehicles for the first use of pilotless heavier than air flight. These include Britain's Aerial Target (a small radio-controlled aircraft) first tested in March 1917 and the United State's Kettering Bug (an aerial torpedo) first flown in October 1918. However, neither was used operationally during the war.
Testing of unmanned aircraft continued during the inter-war period. In 1935, the British produced a number of radio-controlled aircraft used as targets for training purposes. In particular, the De Havilland DH.82B Queen Bee aircraft was used as a low-cost radio-controlled target during pilot training. It is thought the use of the word drone to describe UAVs started during this time inspired by the name "Queen Bee."
UAVs for reconnaissance were first deployed on a large scale in the Vietnam War. UAVs also found use in new roles, such as acting as decoys in combat, launching missiles against fixed targets, and dropping leaflets for psychological operations. In 1973, Israel developed UAVs for Surveillance and Scouting with the Mastiff and the IAA Scout series of aircraft representing a significant leap in drone capabilities. In 1982, Israeli forces used unmanned aircraft to gain a victory over the Syrian Air Force with minimal losses. Considered the first battle where UAVs made a significant difference in the engagement's outcome, Israel used their drones to outmaneuver the Syrian Airforce.
In 1986, the US and Israel jointly developed the RQ2 Pioneer Drone, an upgraded IAI Scout drone with significant payload improvements. In 1996, the US developed the Predator drone, which was used in Afghanistan to launch missiles and search for Osama Bin Laden. In 2006, the FAA issued the first commercial drone permit. In 2013, DJI produced the first Phantom Drone, and many companies, including FedEx, UPS, Amazon, Google, and Uber, began discussing and testing UAV concepts for drone delivery.