The New Dealer

  • March 29April 2019 Edition

The History of Drone Technology

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The History of Drone Technology

Serhiy Dmytruk, Editor

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pg 3, pic 2 (800x600)A drone, or an unmanned aircraft, is an aerial vehicle designed to be used without a human pilot onboard. The idea of eliminating the human counterpart from aerial vehicles developed as early as World War I and continued to become an ambitious achievement even for today. The development of drone technology has been pursued for nearly a century, but the drone as it is known today has been the work of the past thirty years. Drones developed to be operated by remote control technology and/or to be operational purely autonomously, with little or no human intervention. It is still considered to be new technology that needs more improvements and enhancements in various areas of performance.

The development of airplanes places a significant importance on the turn of the nineteenth century, when the fundamental concepts of the airplane took shape in construction. A basic machine was designed for flight, consisting of a propulsion system, fixed wings, and movable control surfaces. Wilbur and Orville Wright experimented with aerodynamic surfaces to control an airplane in flight. Their research led them to create the first controlled, sustained, and powered flights in 1903. By 1914, airplanes were still experimental machines. Within two year of 1914, airplanes were introduced to an automatic gyrostabilizer that created the first automatic pilot. A gyroscope, linked to sensors, kept the airplane at level while traveling in a straight line without aid from the human pilot.

During World War I, the U.S. Navy hired Elmer Ambrose Sperry, the inventor of the gyroscope, to develop a fleet of unmanned biplanes to act as air torpedoes. The biplanes were to be launched remotely and fly over enemy positions. Automatically guided, the planes were supposed to fly a predetermined distance and change course to a vertical fall. The planes were loaded with Trinitrotoluene (TNT) which would explode upon impact of hitting the ground, destroying the region behind enemy lines. The program was never implemented into the battle field, because the planes rarely worked and the war ended in 1918.

In World War II, the U.S. Navy launched a new program with a different approach. Operation Anvil was designed to target German bunkers using refitted B-24 bombers filled to double capacity with explosives.  The bombers were guided by remote control devices to crash at selected targets in Germany and Nazi-controlled France. The remote control technology consisted of a radio-controlled device linked to the planes motors and steering. The limitations of the remote control technology required actual pilots for takeoff. After guiding the plane to a suitable altitude, the pilots were to parachute from the plane and the bomber was to be flown by a mother-plane to its target. The program was extremely unsuccessful and proved a need for greater research of technological advancement in order to produce an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Under the Presidency of Harry S. Truman, the National Security Act of 1947 documented and reorganized the U.S. Air Force as an aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces. The development of aerial weapons and machines was centralized under one branch. The research of unmanned aerial vehicle was halted by the 1950s development of war rockets and radioactive missiles. Air Force engineers resumed extensive research of unmanned aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s. The objective was to create an unmanned aircraft used for surveillance flights, which would not engage in complex flight maneuvers. During the Vietnam War, U.S. drones were programmed to fly pre-programmed routes and take still-photographs. Early attempts of drones were unsuccessful and the technology began to make progress when major improvements in computing and electronic controlling systems accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the early 1980s, Abraham Karem created the aircraft called “Albatross” that made the greatest contribution to the design and efficiency of early drones. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military’s research and development department was impressed when in an experimental Albatross stayed in air for 56 hours straight. DARPA funded Karem’s company which produced the aircraft Amber. It was a disappointment, because of its flight endurance of only 40 hours by 1988, and its inadequate capacity for large quantities of fuel or sophisticated sensor equipment. The following year, Karem’s company created the GNAT-750. It was an improvement of Amber with GPS navigation that allowed for autonomous missions of up to 48 hours and stored infrared and low-light cameras in a moveable sensor turret under its nose.

By 1990, The U.S. Congress placed all unmanned aerial vehicles developments under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon’s Joint Program Office (JPO), which restricted further development of the Amber and GNAT-750.  In 1995, the U.S. Air Force soon established its very first unmanned aerial vehicle squadron, the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Auxiliary Airfield in Nevada. Today, the place is recognized as the Creech Air Force Base and where drone operations in Afghanistan are still actively controlled by the U.S. military.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was authorized to support military operations using drones in the 1990s. The legal authority of the CIA’s involvement in military operations using drones has not been well defined. In the mid 1990s, the CIA used drones for surveillance purposes in the Balkan-Yugoslav Wars without authority from the United Nations. In addition, during this operation the CIA furthered the drone’s surveillance technology by making it remote controlled through satellites, increasing its distance and effectiveness. After the September 11th attacks, drone technology was promoted as combat machines by the CIA. The decision passed through complicated measures as did multiple decision concerning the use of the new combat / military drones.

The development of drones is a continuous process that works to improve the machines. It is a significant tool in the military that is used for surveillance and security, both domestic and abroad. The issues revolving around drone technology do not halt their progress, but raise further questions regarding the ethics of modern warfare- similar to the nuclear arms race concerns during the Cold War.  The next time you choose to learn about world news, think about the drones that dominate modern warfare. The technology is here to stay; whether you accept it or not.

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