To what extent have Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) been used to benefit humanity?

What are UAVs and how have they been used throughout history?

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Almost since the dawn of warfare, armies have sought ways to inflict the most damage on their enemies at the lowest cost to their own troops. Technologies from catapults to cannons have been developed with these simple goals in mind. Modern Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are just the latest version of these weapons, and like so many other ideas devised for warfare, military drones have spawned an entire industry of non-military UAVs. In this Inquiry Unit, students will explore the origins of drones and their related technologies. They will discuss the military and non-military applications of UAVs, as well as the ethical questions raised by their use.

Semi-autonomous and autonomous aerial vehicles or UAVs are part of a very long history that is directly connected to the histories of piloted flight, ballistics, and information processing. Early progress in UAV research was certainly toward military use, but more recently, the technologies were adapted to civilian and commercial activities, as well as to humanitarian and research programs.

Beginning in antiquity, people experimented with a variety of aerial machines, including mechanical wings to allow a person to glide through the air, flying automata driven by compressed air or springs, vertical lift machines such as helicopters, lighter-than-air craft such as hot air balloons, and manned airplanes. They also engineered catapults of varying types that could hurl projectiles through the air at enemies from a distance, demonstrating their understanding of such physical principles as lift, torsion, mechanical advantage, drag and thrust.

Over time, aeronautics development diverged into piloted and unpiloted aircraft. Later work with radar, radio control, telephony and computing allowed for the idea of remote-controlled and autonomous aircraft that could deliver anything from bombs to information and packages, or to survey and report on activities from above the earth. The technical innovations that came out of these pursuits led to modern UAV designs.

Together, the principles of flight and of catapult assault provided the basis for UAVs used in combat.

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Supporting Questions

  • STEM Interdisciplinary – Designing Drones: From TryEngineering, “Lesson focuses on helicopters and drones, how they fly, how they are used in different ways that helps people and the environment. Teams of students explore helicopter flight; and design, build, and test their own simple rotor out of basic materials.”

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  • The Intrepid