How Drones Work

The Drone Backstory
A 1934 Lowe Wilde Drone aircraft painted by the artist William Heath Robinson
A 1934 Lowe Wilde Drone aircraft painted by the artist William Heath Robinson
© ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

There was no history-rattling moment when the first drone went airborne. That's in large part because it's a matter of semantics when trying to determine exactly which historical device qualified as a drone. Was it one of the explosives-laden balloons used in the 1800s? Was it the initial V-1 rockets that the Germans deployed during WWII?

In the early 1900s, military groups used drones, including radio-controlled versions, for target practice. Engineers also developed unmanned aircraft loaded with munitions. These weren't really drones. They were the first cruise missiles, sometimes called flying torpedoes, and not meant to return to base.

During the Cold War, the U.S. ramped up research on drones, hoping to use them as substitutes for manned spy planes. As the Vietnam War dragged on, drones flew thousands of high-risk reconnaissance missions and were destroyed by enemy fire, but in the process saved the lives of pilots who otherwise would have perished.

At about the same time, engineers began equipping drones with real-time surveillance capabilities. With their onboard cameras and unlimited courage, drones could approach enemy lines and document troop movements and strategies without risking human lives.

In 2002, the CIA first used a Predator drone to kill an enemy combatant in Afghanistan. The Predator (more precisely, the MQ-1 Predator), with its spine-chilling name, was one of the first military drones to see widespread action. It was unveiled in 1995 and has since zoomed all over the world — but it's used mostly in the Middle East. It can fly more than 500 miles (805 kilometers) on single mission and circle targets for hours; armed versions can fire sophisticated missiles.

The Predator is one of the best-known military drones, but now it's just one of many. Those first strikes in Afghanistan were, as they say, just the beginning.