The origin, development and future of drones

The origin, development and future of drones


In recent years, drones have rapidly entered people’s field of vision. Whether in virtual worlds such as film and television works and games, or in real fields such as military, public safety services, resource monitoring and protection, natural disaster response, aerial photography, etc., drones are constantly refreshing people’s imagination and meeting new challenges one after another. . Looking back at the origin and development of drones, it is not difficult to find that behind their brilliant achievements is mankind’s yearning for the sky and the accumulation of revolutionary technologies from ancient times to the present.

1 Get to know drones

The so-called drone, as the name suggests, refers to an aircraft that does not carry a driver while flying in the air, but it does not completely require human control. Generally speaking, the user of a drone needs to remotely control its flight through a remote control device or set the flight program for the drone in advance. We can assume a simple scenario: when the drone flies out of people’s sight, it is difficult for people to control the drone in real time according to the environment. At this time, the drone needs to have the “ability” to make its own judgment, maintain a certain flight state or operate in a certain position. Being able to adjust according to the actual environment during the execution of tasks is the core of “unmanned driving”.

In fact, to successfully complete the mission of a drone, in addition to the aircraft platform and the mission equipment it carries, it also needs ground control equipment, data communication equipment, maintenance equipment, as well as command and control and necessary operations, Maintenance personnel, etc. Larger drones also require specialized launch/recovery devices. Therefore, from this perspective, UAVs in the complete sense should be called Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

2 Humanity’s initial exploration of unmanned aerial vehicles

wooden bird

Human beings have a long history of longing for and experimenting with flight. The wooden bird that appears in many ancient books is a preliminary attempt by people to make unmanned aerial vehicles. In Chinese legends, people who were able to make flying wooden birds include Lu Ban, Mozi, Zhang Heng, etc. There are similar records in “Han Feizi·Foreign Reserve Upper Left”, “Mozi·Lu Wen”, “Huainanzi·Qi Su Xun”, etc. But none of them described the structure of the wooden bird. According to records, in 405 BC, the ancient Greek mathematician and mechanic Archytas designed and produced a mechanical bird and named it “Pigeon”. It is considered to be the world’s first unmanned aerial vehicle. It is said that this aircraft can fly about 200m. Coincidentally, the “Wooden Sculpture Flying Solo” in “The Book of the Later Han·Zhang Heng Biography” is said to be a glider flying device that imitates birds. It can fly several miles at a time before landing. “Taiping Yulan” describes “Wooden Sculpture Flying Solo”: “Zhang Heng tried to make a wooden bird, using feathers as a feather, and using a machine in his belly, it can fly several miles.” However, the book does not describe its flight principle and power. The device is explained in detail, so it is difficult for future generations to understand the principle of wooden bird flight.


In addition to wooden birds, humans have also experimented with various types of flying machines, such as kites. The kite is a major aviation invention. According to legend, kites were invented by Han Xin, a general during the Chu-Han conflict. Before the Tang Dynasty, kites were usually made of silk, silk, and bamboo and were made by the government. The quantity was small and the price was high. Therefore, they were mostly used in military reconnaissance, surveying, communications and other fields. Since the Song Dynasty, kites have been gradually introduced to the people for entertainment. We can think of a kite as the prototype of a remote-controlled aircraft. Its thread is the information channel connecting the flying platform to the ground. Not only that, after kites were introduced to the West, they became an important tool for studying aerodynamics, laying the foundation for the development of modern aviation and the invention of airplanes.

Kongming lantern

The Kongming Lantern can also be regarded as the prototype of an unmanned aerial vehicle. There is no accurate record of the time when the Kongming Lantern was produced in ancient books. It is said that during the Five Dynasties period, Xin Qiniang accompanied her husband on an expedition to Fujian, and the Kongming Lantern was used as a military signal during the battle. This kind of lantern is a square lantern made of bamboo and paper. The base is burned with turpentine oil. The hot air fills the lamp and the lamp can rise straight up. The Kongming Lantern is actually a small hot air balloon. Then the Kongming Lantern gradually spread to the West. In 1782, a Japanese lantern was displayed at an exposition in Paris, France. Its principle was basically the same as the Kongming Lantern. It was this spread that triggered a great leap in the history of aviation. A pair of French brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, experimented after watching a Japanese lantern lift-off display. , developed the world’s first hot air balloon in 1783. In the same year, French physicists Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first hydrogen balloon. After the advent of balloons, scientists used them for high-altitude detection, industrialists used them for transportation, and military families used them for aerial reconnaissance. These practical applications stimulated the continuous improvement of balloon technology. Initially, high-altitude exploration using balloons had to be manned, so every exploration was an adventure and sounding activities were very limited. It was not until the end of the 19th century that unmanned balloon detectors were widely used in lower atmosphere research.

bamboo dragonfly

The exploration of vertical flight has given mankind a new direction in the research of aircraft. In 500 BC, the Chinese got inspiration from the observation of dragonfly flight and made the bamboo dragonfly, which provided ideas for the development of vertical flight. In 1483, the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci designed an aircraft that could rise vertically, and is considered by some experts to be the originator of the helicopter. In 1754, Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov combined the rotor and clockwork of the “Bamboo Dragonfly” to design and build a “double-rotor drone” and placed it at the Russian Academy of Sciences. To demonstrate, he hoped the gadget could carry some small weather instruments aloft. Considered a precursor to the helicopter, this “twin-rotor drone” had two clock-spring driven propellers that rotated in opposite directions to balance torque. However, in the demonstration, the device only gained about 0.1N of lift and did not lift too far from the ground.

It is worth noting that the design of aircraft requires a high degree of integration of scientific theory and technology. Without the foundation of ideas and theories, it will be difficult to sustain humankind’s dream of flying. Therefore, humans have never given up research on the properties and effects of air, laying the foundation for the development of aerodynamics and aeronautics. “Baopuzi·Zaying” compiled by Ge Hong of the Jin Dynasty once mentioned the principle of birds flying high: “The teacher said that when a kite flies high, it can only stretch its wings straight and move forward without stopping the fan. “Riding Gang Qi…” Gang Qi here refers to the updraft, which shows that people at that time had begun to think about the relationship between bird flight and air flow. However, as a Taoist classic, “Baopuzi Zaying” has not undergone strict scientific verification. The ancient Greeks had relatively in-depth scientific thinking and research on the nature of air and its macroscopic properties, such as pressure, compressibility, elasticity, fluidity, etc. Especially after the Renaissance, the scientific revolution in Europe promoted the systematic study of air and bird flight by scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, and Blaise Pascal. With the continuous deepening of quantitative research in various sciences in the 17th century, the rapid development of temperature measurement, liquid and gas pressure measurement instruments and technologies further promoted the development of fluid mechanics and gas mechanics, allowing humans to explore the mysteries of flight and design various types of Aircraft laid a solid theoretical foundation.

3 War has become an important engine for the rapid development of drones

The earliest record of drones being used in combat can be traced back to the first Italian War of Independence in 1849. The Austrian army that besieged Venice produced about 200 unmanned burning balloons, each carrying an 11-14kg bomb. Attempted air raid on Venice. However, God was unfavorable, and the wind direction changed suddenly after the balloons were released. These balloons deviated from their targets and instead landed on the Austrian army’s own positions. Although the initial battle with drones ended in failure, it was still a great attempt in human history.

In 1887, British meteorologist Douglas Archibald installed a camera on a kite and controlled the shutter through a long cable connected to the kite string, forming the prototype of an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. And caught the attention of a U.S. Army corporal named William Eddy. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Eddie used the Archibald kite camera he made to take a bird’s-eye view of the enemy’s position, further experimenting with the application of drones in war.

The two world wars in the 20th century put the development of drones on the fast track. At the end of the 19th century, the discovery and application of radio made it possible to control aircraft over long distances. In 1914, during World War I, two British generals proposed to the British Military Aviation Society to develop a small aircraft controlled by radio that could fly to a target and drop bombs on its own. Subsequently, the United Kingdom carried out the development of “air targets”. The project was headed by British scientist Archibald Low. Although it experienced many failures, the “Air Target” was finally successfully launched from RAF Arpavon in 1917, becoming the world’s first The first powered drone to fly under radio control.

“Gyroscope” is the core component of modern aircraft automatic control and inertial navigation systems. In 1909, American inventor Elmer Sperry invented the “gyroscope” and installed it on an airplane to stabilize its flight direction and attitude by measuring its rotation speed. The emergence of gyroscopes attracted the attention of the U.S. Navy, which hoped to develop an aircraft based on it that did not require a pilot to fly. In 1917, as World War I came to an end, inventors Peter Hewitt and Sperry, with funding from the U.S. Navy, invented an automatic gyro stabilizer that could keep the aircraft in a balanced state and fly forward. They installed the automatic gyro stabilizer and radio remote control device on the Navy’s Curtiss N-9 training aircraft, and successfully transformed it into mankind’s first autonomous drone. Since it does not have the recovery function, it is an “aerial drone”. Torpedo”, but people still named it “Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane”. Later, American inventor Charles Kettering designed a more advanced drone called the “Kettering Bug”. In fact, as World War I ended, these “aerial torpedoes” were not used in the war, but they allowed the military to see their potential in combat. We can think of today’s cruise missiles as a variant of these “air torpedoes.” In order to improve the accuracy of “air torpedoes”, the military and scientists continue to promote the development of inertial navigation and radio control technologies, making them the core technologies for the development of drones for a long time.

In the more than a decade following the end of World War I, the rate of drone development declined dramatically. However, the outbreak of World War II stimulated the enthusiasm of various countries in the development of drones. In the 1930s, new drones emerged as an important combat training tool. In 1935, the United Kingdom developed the first reusable unmanned target drone, the “Queen Bee”, which was used as an aerial target in training missions. In 1939, British actor Reginald Denny and his Radio Aircraft Company designed the RP-1, a large remote-controlled aircraft for training anti-aircraft gun crews. Over the next few years, they successfully produced a series of drones that were mass-produced, supplying nearly 15,000 drones to the U.S. military during World War II.

At the same time, Germany, the United States and others developed unmanned bombers by modifying manned bombers. These drones have dismantled redundant self-defense weapons and equipment, installed automatic control systems, and can carry more bombs. In 1944, German engineer Fieseler Flugzeuhau developed the Vergeltungswaffe-1 (Vergeltungswaffe-1), which demonstrated the huge threat that drones could pose in combat. In the same year, in the process of fighting against the Avengers One, the United States modified its B-17 bombers and used the TV guidance system for remote control, destroying the German Avengers One missile launch base. Although the remote control device was unreliable and still required human control to take off, this was the first time a drone was used against another drone, and it also laid the foundation for the development of American drones after the war.

After the end of World War II, the two major camps, represented by the United States and the Soviet Union, launched a fierce competition in the field of drone research and development. During this period, drones mainly carried out reconnaissance activities. The American “Ryan Firebee” drone became the first jet-propelled drone. It was mainly used for intelligence collection and radio communication monitoring activities. It played an important role in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It remains to this day. The U.S. military still uses several improved versions of the Firebee drone. In 1957, the Soviet Union also developed the “Harrier” supersonic drone, the “Kite” unmanned attack aircraft, the “Swift” and the “Voyage” unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

In the 1970s, other countries also started the research and development of unmanned aerial vehicle systems. Among them, the development of drones in Israel is extremely rapid. Under the pressure of war, while outsourcing drones, Israel also accelerated its efforts, quickly established its own drone design and production base, and developed a large number of drones, such as the “Pioneer”, which was later used in the first Gulf Purchased and used by the United States during the war.

With the development of science and technology such as electronic technology, communication technology, materials science and aerodynamics, since the 1990s, UAVs have gradually developed towards miniaturization, informatization and lightweight, and their military uses have become more and more extensive. It is no longer limited to high-altitude reconnaissance, but can also complete various tasks such as relay communications, electronic countermeasures, air defense, air control, and precision strikes. UAVs have become an important force affecting the combat process, and series of UAVs such as Predator and Global Hawk are widely used.

4 Drones will usher in a golden development period

Entering the 21st century, with the rapid development of science and technology and the continuous advancement of military reforms, the research and development and application of drones in the world have entered a new period. The performance of drones is becoming more and more superior, and the alternative power to manned aircraft is becoming more and more important. powerful.

On the one hand, the scope of use of UAVs in the military field is still expanding, including integration of surveillance and attack, comprehensive integration, highly intelligent, smart and miniaturized, long-duration in the air, invisible structure, coordinated use, and networked operations. It has become an important development direction for military drones, and the development speed will be even more rapid.

On the other hand, with the increasingly stable technology of military drones and the leap forward in artificial intelligence technology, the demand for the application of drones in the civilian field has shown a blowout and leapfrog growth. Currently, drones have been widely used in many fields such as agriculture, surveying and mapping, logistics and transportation, traffic law enforcement, and film and television shooting. Their practical value continues to increase, and their application scenarios also show a trend of diversified expansion. Scenes from science fiction works will gradually become a part of daily life. accomplish.

The “White Paper on General Aviation Industry Development (2022)” released by Aviation Industry Corporation of China shows that the global civil drone market will maintain rapid growth, and the market size is expected to reach 500 billion yuan in 2025. Although my country’s drone technology started late, it has also achieved fruitful results. From the Changkong-1, which imitates the Soviet UAV, to the Changjian series of large-scale high-altitude and long-endurance UAVs, the Rainbow series of medium-altitude and long-endurance UAVs, the Pterosaur series of UAVs, the Gantry UAVs, and the Xiaolong UAVs. Our country’s technical level in the field of drones has significantly improved, such as man-machine drones. At the same time, world-renowned civilian drone manufacturing companies such as DJI have also been born.

Looking to the future, as the potential market for the drone industry is further released, the changes it will bring will exceed most people’s imagination, but with it will come a series of technical and legal issues that the whole society may face. Therefore, in order to ensure the positive and healthy development of the drone industry, we need to pay more attention to the relevant policies for the development of the drone industry, and strive to create a good ecological environment for its development, so that drones can continue to create a better society and economy for mankind. benefit. We believe that in the future, drones will be more deeply integrated into our lives, change our lives, and bring us more surprises.


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