The Evolution of Drones: From Military to Hobby & Commercial

By January 15, 2019 February 9th, 2021 No Comments

When most people hear the word “drone” they traditionally picture advanced weaponized military technology, however, that perception is outdated. Drones today are used in a multitude of ways, from hobby racing and industrial safety inspections, to security surveillance.

So, what is a Drone?

In modern uses, the word “drone” refers to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). In other words, aircraft that don’t require an on-board pilot in order to operate. For our purposes, technologies in the drone sector will be broken down into two categories: drones that require a human operator to guide its missions and autonomous drones, which do not.

Since their first use in the mid-1800s, drone have been used for photography, security, safety, and environmental applications. However, warfare is responsible for paving the way to the drone technologies we have today. Military units across the globe were among the first to recognize the benefits drones could provide to wartime strategies and began working to expand the industry.


The History of Military Drones: The 1800s

Today, when we think of drones, we tend to think of sleek, advanced planes and quadcopters.  However, the world’s inventors and militaries first developed drone technology as balloons, torpedoes, and aerial targets – feats of invention and innovation at the time.

Since the mid-1800s, militaries around the world have been utilizing drone technology for:

  • Training
  • Target Practice
  • Air Strikes
  • Bomb Detection
  • Surveillance
  • Hostage Negotiation

In 1849, the Austrian Navy used two hundred incendiary balloons in an effort to capture Venice.

By the early 1900s, the United States military began exploring drone technology to build practice targets for training.


World War I

In 1915, Nikola Tesla wrote about unmanned aerial combat vehicles. The first attempt at a self-propelled drone as an aerial target was completed in 1916 by A.M. Low. It wasn’t until World War I that the first pilotless torpedo was invented by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company.

After World War I, companies worked to push drone technology forward with inventions like the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane and the Kettering bug, an unmanned aerial torpedo. Most efforts during this time were completed by the military up until 1935, when actor and model-airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny became the first civilian to develop a remotely piloted vehicle.

First Pilotless Torpedo

First Pilotless Torpedo – Getty Images


World War II

During World War II both Allied and German forces used drones to train aircraft gunners and aid in missions. After the end of World War II, drone developers began using jet engines in technologies like the Australian GAF Jindivik and the Model 10001, built for the U.S. Navy by Beechcraft.

However, after World War II, technology innovations stalled until the Vietnam War.

Australian GAF Jindivik

Australian GAF Jindivik


The Vietnam War

In the early years of the war, the U.S. Air Force began using unmanned aircrafts to cut down on pilot deaths over hostile territory. Investment in drone technology continued after the Soviet Union shot down an American spy plane in 1960.

By the late 1960s, the U.S. government had invested in and used drone technology throughout Vietnam and to aid in naval missions, though most of these missions were classified.

American U-2 spy plane

American U-2 spy plane


The 70s, 80s, & 90s

In the early 70s, Israel began using drones as decoys in the Yom Kippur War. It was during this same time that the United States officially confirmed that they had been using drones in Vietnam. According to the Armed Forces Journal International in 1982, the U.S. stated that they had flown more than 3,435 drone missions during the war for both decoy and surveillance applications.

It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s, that the U.S. military began heavily investing in the technology. The U.S. Department of Defense awarded the AAI Corp and Israel-based Malat contracts in the 90s to develop more advanced drone technology, which resulted in more cost-efficient technologies.

The MQ-9 Reaper

The MQ-9 Reaper is a larger, more powerful version of the U.S. government’s initial MQ-1 Predator drone developed in the 1990s.

In the mid-90s, the U.S. government began The Predator program , which resulted in the MQ-1 Predator, equipped with a Hellfire anti-tank missile on its wings. It paved the way to the MQ-9 Reaper in 2007. The Predator and Reaper drones are what most people today picture when they think of military drones.

As of 2016, more than ten countries use weaponized drones, including the U.S., China, Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

The U.S. military’s drone spending was budgeted at a five-year high in 2018 with nearly $7 billion dedicated to drone expenses.


Commercial Drones Take Flight

Informed by military research and development over the previous 150 years, the first use of drones for non-military ventures started in 2006, the same year the Federal Aviation Administration issued its first commercial drone permit.

Government agencies quickly began testing drone technologies for disaster relief and border surveillance while corporations began using them for commercial applications like pipeline inspections, crop evaluation, and security.

Amazon delivery drone

(via The Verge)

Despite these major advancements in technology and regulation, it would be another decade before the commercial drone industry would truly takeoff.


Hobby Drones Become Mainstream

It wasn’t until 2013, after Amazon announced it would use drones for delivery, that the general public really began to take notice.

While the commercial drone space has struggled with regulations over the last ten years, the personal and recreational drone industries have grown under less scrutiny.

The majority of hobby drones, those used by private citizens for non-commercial purposes, are quadcopters, or drones with four propellers. They are considerably cheaper than their commercial counterparts, typically under $2,000 and lacking the sophisticated software and sensors required of their commercial counterparts.

Although hobby drones initially escaped some of the regulatory hurdles that face commercial drone manufacturers, drone enthusiasts have expressed concerns about the possible repeal of Section 336, a provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

Hobby drones, such as this one by DJI

Hobby drones, such as this one by DJI, have grown in popularity over the last five years for photography and racing.

Under Section 336, the FAA was prevented from creating rules that would severely limit hobby drones. As long as drones were under 55 pounds, used for recreational purposes, and didn’t interfere with manned aircraft, they were in the clear.

Since 2012, hobby drones have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry and have come under scrutiny. If Section 336 is repealed, manufacturers would have to invest in more expensive hardware to, pricing hobbyists out of the market.

In 2017, recreational drones accounted for $2.4 billion of the total $6 billion drone market. According to recent studies, nearly three million personal drones were anticipated to be produced during the same year.

As of 2018, companies around the world, from the U.S., to China, to Israel, have invested funds to research drone use for things like taxi services, photography, and indoor applications.

Commercial drone

(via Lift Aircraft)


The Success of Commercial Drones

Even as the consumer drone market exploded and reduced the cost of drone technology, enterprises were reluctant to scale their drone programs. The FAA’s long term rules for commercial use and their implications remained uncertain, and the risk of investing was perceived as too high.

John Mica speaking on commercial drones

(via C-SPAN)

By the time of the first US congressional hearing on the issue in 2015, only 13 permits had been approved in nearly 10 years.

That all changed in the fall of 2016, when the landmark Part 107 rule clearly defined requirements for commercial operations in the US, effectively making skies open for business.  Soon after, the FAA began issuing thousands of drone permits per year.

Agricultural and industrial sites were the first two main markets for commercial drone use. Drones were used to manage crops and carry out inspections. Due to tight margins in the agricultural market, other industries such as utilities, renewable energy, mining, and port and sea terminals have since outpaced it in terms of adoption.

Since inspections are necessary throughout all markets that use drones, Gartner expects the use of drones for inspections to encompass 30% of the commercial drone market by 2020.

Today, the greatest barrier to adoption is the operational expense of the human operator. That’s why autonomous drone technology, like Percepto’s advanced drone solution, is becoming increasingly popular across the globe as a cost-effective way to collect data and ensure environmental standards are met while carrying out security surveillance and inspections.

The growing demand for automation on commercial sites boosted the commercial drone market by nearly $1 billion between 2016 and 2017.

The Percepto Solution is an advanced autonomous drone solution

The Percepto Solution is an advanced autonomous drone solution for commercial use, including security surveillance, safety inspections, data collection, and operational oversight.


Percepto and the Future of Autonomous Drones

At Percepto, we’re committed to developing the most advanced, fully autonomous UAS in the world.

With a background steeped in military and defense expertise, Percepto offers advanced technology to large-scale enterprises looking to improve security, collect operational data, optimize maintenance cycles, and reduce safety risks and operational costs.

If your company is interested in reducing costs and improving efficiency, contact us today to learn more about our advanced drone solution.

Jackie Alkobi

Post Written by

Jackie Alkobi is Percepto’s Content Marketing Manager, and is responsible for the company’s content generation, management, and digital marketing. She joined the Percepto team in 2017, holds a BSc in Mechanical Engineering and a BA in International Relations from Lehigh University, and has extensive experience in the area of regulations for autonomous drones.