The development of drones

18 July 2016

A world in which autonomous drones fill our skies with spy cameras, communication relay stations and shopping deliveries feels like the stuff of science fiction but plenty of serious companies are investing time and energy into making it a reality. As ever, investment in technology goes hand in hand with investment in Intellectual Property and a quick database search reveals that, between 1st June and the time of writing, there have been at least 98 publications of patent applications relating to drones, filed by Google (how to transition your drone between crosswind and hover flight), Amazon (inflight object detection and avoidance using light patterns), Boeing (take-off system with a winch), and many others. The fields of use range from military to agricultural to just plain fun.

Once you get into them, patent databases can be thought-inspiring places. No, really. Every patent application is categorised: let’s say you were interested in unmanned aerial vehicles: the cooperative patent classification B64C 2201 is just what you need. If that’s not enough for you, there’s another level to allow you to distinguish between the type of power used (B64C 2201/06), the launching method (B64C 2201/08) or what it does while it’s up in the air (B64C 2201/12). Using these codes can quickly take you back to the very origins of an idea, and in this case to patent US2456198 to Charles F Kettering, and the ‘Kettering Bug’. 

Developed during the first world war (but treated as a military secret until years later), the Kettering bug was an ‘aerial torpedo’ which climbed to an altitude, levelled out and flew for a set number of engine revolutions, then cut out. Once set up and launched, it was largely on its own, and US2456198 describes how it responded to changes in atmospheric pressure to control its rate of climb and flight altitude. 

Being in at the dawn of drone technology is far from Charles F Kettering’s only contribution to invention – he is a major part of the reason that, when you pop to the shops for milk, you don’t have to get out of your car and crank a handle to start it, your engine then purrs rather than sputters and when you get home, there’s a fridge to put your milk in.

As well as clearly being a highly practically man, Charles talked about inventing rather poetically. He worked alongside the Wright brothers and said they “flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility” – something many inventors do. He also said, “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” Such a man may then have been disappointed to learn that techniques for refrigeration (Freon gas) and knock-free engines (leaded petrol) turned out to have rather more of a downside than an up. Whether history looks kindly on him as a forefather of the drone remains to be seen, but it seems we are well on the way to finding out.

Caroline Day

Caroline Day


Our Expert
Caroline Day
Caroline Day
Location: Bristol (UK)

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