A Brief History of Unmanned Aircraft

From bomb-bearing balloons to the Global Hawk

An MQ-1 Predator over a mountain range in Nevada. (MSgt Scott Reed)

Non-Military Use


Despite the historic focus on military uses, UAV designers see an ever-expanding non-military role for their vehicles as airframe designs, control systems, and onboard sensors become more reliable, smaller, lighter, longer-lasting, safer, and cheaper.

In 2007, an Aerosonde UAV took off from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and headed into Hurricane Noel, a Category 1 storm churning up the eastern coast of the United States. During its 17 hour, 27 minute flight into Noel, the Aerosonde flew as low as 300 feet above sea level, far lower than a piloted airplane would dare travel inside a hurricane eyewall. Last year, NASA used a Global Hawk to take this image of Tropical Storm Frank over the Pacific Ocean. Other non-military UAV uses include crop monitoring, search and rescue, fire spotting, mineral exploration, aerial photography and ground mapping. And those are only the ones we’ve thought of already.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Flight of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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