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Complete Evolution & History of Drones: From 1800s to 2024

By: Richard J. Gross
Updated On: May 11, 2023

Drones have come a long way since their inception, evolving from simple tools used in warfare to multi-purpose devices that we now use for exploration, photography, and even package delivery.

I find it fascinating to look back on the history of these drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and see how they’ve expanded into various industries and applications over time.

The journey of drones began in the early 20th century with the development of the first pilotless aircraft. World War I sparked a need for technological advancements in warfare, and this led to the creation of the Kettering Bug, which was one of the first UAVs ever made. However, it was not until World War II that drones became more widely utilized, particularly in surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

As drone technology continued to evolve after the wars, they started to gain popularity in non-military sectors as well. Today, I’ll be shedding light on some of the key moments and breakthroughs in the history of drones, which have become an integral part of our modern world.

Early Beginnings: Balloons and Kites

To understand the history of drones, we must first look back at their earliest predecessors: balloons and kites. These flying inventions date back centuries before the first drone ever made. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when were drones invented, since the technology has evolved over time, and their popularity surged relatively recently.

In the early days, kites and balloons served a variety of purposes, from simple recreational activities to complex military operations:

  • Kites were invented in China around 1000 BCE, with the earliest ones used primarily for cultural and religious celebrations.
  • During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), kites took on military applications for signaling, reconnaissance, and even lifting soldiers into the air.
  • Balloons, meanwhile, entered the scene in the 18th century in France. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon carrying passengers, setting the stage for aerial exploration and transportation.

As time went on, kites and balloons were increasingly employed for scientific experiments and surveillance:

  • In 1849, Austrian forces launched the first recorded use of balloons for military reconnaissance, scouting Italian positions during a conflict.
  • British meteorologist James Glaisher, in the mid-19th century, utilized balloons for high-altitude atmospheric studies, further expanding their potential applications.

The evolution of drones really began to take shape in the early 20th century with the advent of remote-controlled and autonomous aircraft. Some of the groundbreaking developments include:

  • The first successful remote-controlled aircraft, the British “Aerial Target,” flew in 1917, intended for anti-aircraft training.
  • In 1935, the US Navy developed the “Curtiss N2C-2,” an early radio-controlled drone designed for target practice and reconnaissance.
  • The iconic “V-1 Flying Bomb” from World War II was an early guided missile, paving the way for more sophisticated autonomous drones.

Despite this progress, it took time for drones to gain widespread recognition and find their place in modern society. It’s tough to say exactly when did drones become popular, but there are a few milestones we can look at:

  • In the 1980s and 90s, drones saw increased use in military operations, including reconnaissance and even attack roles.
  • The development of consumer drone technology, like the first mass-market drone, the DJI Phantom, in 2013, brought drones into the mainstream.
  • Drone racing, which took off around 2015, added to the popularity, with the creation of the Drone Racing League (DRL).

These early beginnings laid the foundation for the diverse and ever-expanding world of drones we know today. From balloons and kites to remote-controlled aircraft and autonomous machines, the history of drones is truly a fascinating journey.

The Birth of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

When it comes to the history of drones, understanding their origins is essential. Many people wonder when were drones invented and how they have evolved over time. The concept of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) dates back to the mid-1800s, with the first recognized drone being the Aerial Target used by the British Royal Navy in 1917. Since then, drones have come a long way, and their applications have expanded significantly.

The first drone ever made was a pilotless, radio-controlled aircraft referred to as the “Kettering Bug” invented by Charles Kettering in the United States during World War I. This invention paved the way for UAV development in subsequent years.

Below is an overview of the evolution of drones:

YearDrone ModelNotable Feature
1917Aerial TargetFirst recognized drone
1918Kettering BugFirst radio-controlled aircraft
1935DH.82B Queen BeeInspired the term “drone”
1960MQM-57 FalconerAerial reconnaissance
1990Gnat 750Advanced surveillance capabilities
2001RQ-1 PredatorArmed for military use
2010Parrot AR.DroneFirst consumer drone

While military and reconnaissance applications dominated the early usage of drones, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that modern UAVs evolved. In the 1990s, the Gnat 750 autonomous UAV pushed the boundaries of drone capabilities, leading to the more well-known RQ-1 Predator, which redefined military and strategic operations in the 21st century.

So when did drones become popular among the general public? The answer lies in the early 2010s with the release of the Parrot AR.Drone, which was designed for recreational use. This consumer drone quickly gained traction, and the drone industry has since expanded to include an array of applications, such as:

  • Aerial photography
  • Racing and sports
  • Wildlife conservation
  • Agriculture and environmental monitoring
  • Emergency response

The evolution of drones has been rapid, and their accessibility and usefulness have only increased over time. With growing demand and a broad range of applications, it’s evident that drones are here to stay, and the potential for future advancements is limitless.

World War I: Military Innovations and Advancements

Let’s go back in the early 20th century, when the first drone ever made its appearance. During World War I, technology progressed at an unprecedented pace, and one of the major advancements in military technology was the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.

In 1915, British engineer Archibald Low developed the Aerial Target, which was initially designed as a response to the growing threat of German Zeppelins. This remotely-controlled aircraft, though never deployed in combat, showcased the potential of unmanned flight systems for military purposes.

History of Drones DH.82B Queen Bee aircraft

Another notable drone from this era is the American-made Kettering Bug, created in 1918 by Charles Kettering. Aiming to provide a longer range for attacks, the Bug was an early version of a cruise missile rather than a true drone, but it demonstrated the ability to autonomously follow a predetermined flight path, which was extraordinary at the time.

Some milestones in drone development during World War I include:

  • British engineer’s Archibald Low’s Aerial Target in 1915
  • American Charles Kettering’s Kettering Bug in 1918

It wasn’t until the Cold War era that drones began to evolve further and take on more sophisticated roles in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Fast forward to the present day, and UAVs are now indispensable assets for military forces and civilians alike.

So, when did drones become popular? Unmanned aerial vehicles, especially consumer-grade ones, started gaining widespread popularity in the late 2000s, driven by advancements in sensor technology, battery life, and affordability. The evolution of drones from military-exclusive, cutting-edge weapons to widespread civilian tools is nothing short of astounding, and they now play a critical role in various industries such as agriculture, filmmaking, and environmental monitoring.

In summary, drones have come a long way from their rudimentary beginnings as simple, remote-controlled aircraft. Their history is a testament to human ingenuity, always striving for new ways to expand our capabilities and understanding of the world. As they continue to evolve and become more versatile, we can anticipate that drones will play an increasingly important role in a multitude of applications – benefiting us in ways we can only begin to imagine.

The Rise of Modern Drones After World War II

As I dive into the history of drones, it’s essential to recognize that modern drones truly began to take shape after World War II. This fascinating period saw a rapid evolution, ultimately leading to the widespread popularity of drones today.

When discussing when were drones invented, it’s vital to mention that the foundations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were initially laid during World War I. However, the first drone ever made, the radio-controlled Kettering Bug, was developed during this time and fulfilled a targeted bomb-dropping role.

History of Drones the queen bee

After World War II, advances in technology and engineering enabled the development of more sophisticated drones for various purposes. During the 1950s and 1960s, the US military heavily invested in UAV development, with the reconnaissance drone Ryan Firebee being a notable example. These early drones contributed to the evolution of drones, as they expanded their capabilities beyond military applications.

  • 1950s-1960s: Military investment in UAV development
  • Late 1960s: Firebee drones deployed in Vietnam for reconnaissance

It wasn’t until the late 20th century when commercial and civilian interest in drones started to gain traction. As technology advanced, drones became smaller, lighter, and more affordable, leading to a slew of new applications. From photography and filmmaking to agriculture and search & rescue missions, the versatility of drones made them increasingly popular in various industries.

When pondering the question, when did drones become popular, the real explosion in popularity can be traced back to the introduction of quadcopters in the late 2000s. These multi-rotor helicopters, combined with more accessible global positioning systems (GPS) and improved battery life, finally made drones a truly mainstream consumer product.

Also Read: The 4 Best Mini Drones In 2024: Best Camera & Long Battery

How did the Camera get on the Drones?

During the 1980s, drone technology started to be used for civilian purposes, and they were used more and more frequently in fields such as filmmaking. By this point, drones were already equipped with cameras, but their capabilities were limited due to battery life and camera quality of the time.

There was also a need for small-sized drones that could be easily flown, and these miniaturized systems could only carry smaller payloads such as cameras.

The cameras were installed on the drones for surveillance purposes, not for shooting movies. The civilian use of the drones and their camera came into place a lot later than their military use. It was the CIA that used Unmanned drones as spy planes, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that there were advancements in technology that allowed small-scale drone systems to carry better cameras.

Once more advanced technologies such as improved batteries became more accessible, it was inevitable that consumer tech would eventually get involved with drones too.

At first, you had flights that lasted up to 30 minutes after just 5 minutes of charging, thanks to lithium-ion batteries, which revolutionized the size of drones we have today. This meant drones could be developed for a variety of purposes, and they could be used to monitor various places such as fires or floods.

Civilian and Commercial Drones

In 2006 drones were finally liberated to be used for recreational purposes, and they were no longer just for military use. Meanwhile, in 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) brought in laws that made it illegal to fly unmanned aircraft without regulation to protect other people’s privacy and safety which later became the biggest obstacle of commercializing drones.

History of Drones Parrot, DJI and 3DR

Many big brands came into the business, and the rest is known as History. The companies that started first with civilian drones were Parrot, DJI, and 3DR. Early on, drones were not meant for shooting films, but nowadays, they are used by both professionals and amateurs alike for tasks such as aerial mapping.

Drones have many uses today, including industrial use cases, i.e., inspecting power lines or pipelines without putting people in harm’s way of doing so, to farming where drones can be used to improve the efficiency of spraying insecticides onto crops or checking whether crops need watering or not.

You can even use them to deliver food, medicine, and other small packages across cities, which is known as aerial logistics.

The History of Drones at a Glance☆

WWIKettering Bug, targeted bombing
WWIIFoundations for modern UAVs established
1950s-60sMilitary investments in UAV development
Late 20th CenturyCommercial & civilian interest rises
Late 2000sQuadcopters & consumer popularity

In summary, the rise of modern drones after World War II can be attributed to leaps in technology, military investments, and burgeoning commercial and civilian interest. This remarkable journey has transformed drones from their early military-oriented roles into versatile tools that are now indispensable in various industries and hobbies.

Commercialization of UAVs in the Late 20th Century

Let’s take a closer look at the commercialization of UAVs in the late 20th century. This period marked significant advancements for drone technology, as the first drone ever made evolved into versatile tools for various industries.

Initially, the main driving factor behind UAV advancements was military application, with the Aerosonde being the first drone designed specifically for meteorological and environmental monitoring. This drone was developed in the 1990s, marking the beginning for commercial drone usage.

Here are some key changes that took place during the late 20th century, leading to more commercial applications for drones:

  • Advancements in computer technology: As computers became more powerful, it enabled drone developers to improve the stability, control, and capabilities of UAVs. This progress allowed for the creation of more sophisticated drones suited for commercial use.
  • Decrease in manufacturing costs: As technology advanced, the cost of manufacturing drones significantly decreased, making them more accessible and affordable. This development paved the way for a broader market of potential consumers and industries.
  • Miniaturization of components: The late 20th century saw the miniaturization of many essential drone components, such as cameras, sensors, and motors. The smaller size of these components made it possible to develop lightweight drones with improved flight capabilities and longer flight times.

During this time, concepts like aerial photography and remote sensing became more feasible thanks to the technology advancements. Industries like agriculture, wildlife monitoring, and filmmaking benefited from these technological strides. So, when did drones become popular? It was during this period that the stage was set for their widespread adoption in the commercial sector.

To summarize, the late 20th century brought critical advancements in drone technology, turning them from military tools to commercial assets. Improvements in computer technology, manufacturing costs, and miniaturization of components all contributed to the commercialization of UAVs. As a result, the use of drones expanded their practical applications across various industries, paving the way for today’s flourishing drone market.

The Advent of Quadcopters and Multicopters

The history of drones has always fascinated me. Diving deeper into their story reveals intriguing insights about their development, especially when it comes to quadcopters and multicopters. In this section, I’ll focus on these captivating innovations.

Fast forward to the 21st century, the drone market underwent a significant change with the introduction of quadcopters and multicopters.

Quadcopters and multicopters are types of drones with multiple rotors, which helps them hover and maintain stability while flying. These modern marvels became influential in the world of drones due to their unique designs and versatile applications. So, when did drones become popular? The answer lies in the year 2006 when the Paparazzi Project developed an AFFORDABLE open-source autopilot system for unmanned aircraft. This pivotal moment marks a turning point in the evolution of drones.

The benefits of multicopters include:

  • Increased Stability
  • Improved Maneuverability
  • Enhanced Payload Capacity
  • Versatility in Applications

One notable point in time for quadcopters came in 2010 when Parrot, a French technology company, introduced the AR.Drone. This groundbreaking innovation was the first consumer drone controlled primarily through a smartphone or tablet. It propelled the recreational use of drones forward, increasing their popular appeal.

DJI, a prominent industry leader, emerged in 2006 and further revolutionized the world of drones with the introduction of the Phantom series. These drones enabled professional quality aerial photography and videography, making them popular among photographers, filmmakers, and enthusiasts alike.

YearMilestone Event
1898Invention of the First Unmanned Boat by Nikola Tesla
2006Development of Affordable Open-Source Autopilot System by Paparazzi Project
2010Introduction of Parrot AR.Drone
2013Release of DJI Phantom Series

To summarize this fascinating journey, quadcopters and multicopters transformed the drone industry, offering both professionals and hobbyists a wide range of possibilities in various fields. With their unique designs and versatile applications, these innovations continue to shape the drone market today, pushing the boundaries of what’s achievable with this exciting technology.

The Impact of Drones on Industries and Society

Being a drone lover, I’ve observed how different sectors have benefited from these innovative aircraft. Some of the industries that have witnessed a transformation include:

  • Agriculture: Farmers use drones for tasks like monitoring crop health, spraying fertilizers, and evaluating irrigation systems.
  • Public safety: Law enforcement agencies and rescue teams employ drones to assess crime scenes, search for missing persons, and support firefighting efforts.
  • Infrastructure inspection: Drones help inspect power lines, bridges, and pipelines efficiently and safely.
  • Media and entertainment: Drones capture breathtaking aerial footage and have revolutionized photography and videography.
  • Package delivery: Companies like Amazon are testing drone-based delivery systems to speed up the delivery process.

Another significant change brought about by drones is their impact on societies across the globe. Here’s how drones are influencing our daily lives:

  • Environmental conservation: Drones assist in monitoring wildlife populations, assessing forest health, and tracking poachers or illegal logging activities.
  • Disaster relief: They provide real-time information for first responders during natural disasters, making their efforts more efficient and effective.
  • Privacy concerns: As drone usage increases, concerns about privacy invasion are also on the rise. Consequently, discussions around regulating drone usage to prevent intrusive behavior are taking place.
  • Job creation: The drone industry has created job opportunities in manufacturing, maintenance, and operation, as well as roles in supporting industries like software and data analysis.
1849First drone ever made
2000sDrones began to gain popularity

As the history of drones continues to unfold, it’s clear that their impact on industries and society is here to stay. In the future, we can expect further advancements in drone technology, opening new possibilities and shaping how we work, play, and interact with one another.


The History of drones has been a long and interesting one, with the first documented use dating back to 1849. Today there are many different types of drone models that can be used for both work and leisure purposes.

Whether you’re interested in toy drones or professional-grade devices, we hope this overview will help you find the perfect option for your needs.

Richard J. Gross

Hi, my name is Richard J. Gross and I’m a full-time Airbus pilot and commercial drone business owner. I got into drones in 2015 when I started doing aerial photography for real estate companies. I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, but it turns out that police were called on me shortly after I started flying. They didn’t like me flying my drone near people, so they asked me to come train their officers on the rules and regulations for drones. After that, I decided to start my own drone business and teach others about the safe and responsible use of drones.

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