Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), unmanned systems or drones as we more commonly know them have been around for years, and in the last decade the landscape has seen some significant changes to both regulation and registration practices and how they impact operators.  Although we see drones integrated into industry practices today, it is also important to look back and remember the history of drones in society.

In July of 1995 the Civil Aviation Safety Authority or CASA was established as an independent statutory authority to contribute to a structure for safe aviation operations in Australia.

A few years later the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR) 1998 was created (which was based on the Civil Aviation Act). In 2001 Part 101 was added, which set out rules governing remotely piloted and model aircrafts. This is when Australia was seen to have officially entered ‘The Drone Age’ as it became the first country to introduce legislation around unmanned aerial vehicles. Since then the CASA has worked to modernise these regulations to allow for current innovation and practices.

In 2016 specifically CASA almost completely deregulated the recreational use of drones with amendments to Part 101 of CASR by shifting drone regulations to depend on weight rather than operational purposes. Whilst this allowed more Australian businesses to use ‘small’ drones for commercial operations, it meant the use of these small commercial drones increased with operators not completing sufficient training and ultimately created greater risk.

The history of what we might recognize as drones today began during World War I when airplanes guided by radio were used to attack zeppelins. Development of radio-controlled airplanes continued after the war, with better, faster, and, more importantly, smaller drones taking flight.


A Brief History of Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are aircraft with no on-board crew or passengers. They can be automated ‘drones’ or remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). UAV’s can fly for long periods of time at a controlled level of speed and height and have a role in many aspects of aviation.

The first pilotless vehicles were developed in Britain and the USA during the First World War. Britain’s Aerial Target, a small radio-controlled aircraft, was first tested in March 1917 while the American aerial torpedo known as the Kettering Bug first flew in October 1918. Although both showed promise in flight tests, neither were used operationally during the war.

During the inter-war period the development and testing of unmanned aircraft continued. In 1935 the British produced a number of radio-controlled aircraft to be used as targets for training purposes. It's thought the term 'drone' started to be used at this time, inspired by the name of one of these models, the DH.82B Queen Bee. Radio-controlled drones were also manufactured in the United States and used for target practice and training.

Reconnaissance UAVs were first deployed on a large scale in the Vietnam War. Drones also began to be used in a range of new roles, such as acting as decoys in combat, launching missiles against fixed targets and dropping leaflets for psychological operations. 

Following the Vietnam War other countries outside of Britain and the United States began to explore unmanned aerial technology. New models became more sophisticated, with improved endurance and the ability to maintain greater height. In recent years models have been developed that use technology such as solar power to tackle the problem of fuelling longer flights.

Drones now have many functions, ranging from monitoring climate change to carrying out search operations after natural disasters, photography, filming, and delivering goods. But their most well-known and controversial use is by the military for reconnaissance, surveillance and targeted attacks. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States in particular has significantly increased its use of drones. They are mostly used for surveillance in areas and terrains where troops are unable to safely go. But they are also used as weapons and have been credited with killing suspected militants. Their use in current conflicts and over some countries has raised questions about the ethics of this kind of weaponry, especially when it results in civilian deaths, either due to inaccurate data or because of their proximity to a ‘target’.