Though Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones”, have been around since the earliest days of aviation, their use increased dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century. From 2001 to 2012, the number of UAVs in the United States military alone grew from just 60 aircraft to over 6,000.

Military UAVs represent just part of the picture. We also use drones for everything from law enforcement, to search and rescue after natural disasters, weather research, pest control, and even for taking aerial shots for real estate developers. Images: The rapid growth of these pilot-less aircraft in military and civil law enforcement operations thrust them into the public spotlight and surrounded them with controversy. But what exactly are UAVs? How do they work? Where did they come from?

The Sky-bots exhibit in the Museum's Great Gallery takes a look at the history and uses of unmanned aerial vehicles. The exhibit features several historically significant UAVs, including a German V-1; the Insitu Aerosonde, the first pilot-less aircraft to fly across the Atlantic; and the Dark Star, the first attempt to make a "stealth" drone.

Assembling the ScanEagle:

Photo Captions

From top

  1. A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper soars over the desert. -United States Air Force
  2. In 1918, Elmer Sperry launched the first successful powered flight of a purpose-built unmanned aircraft. A 1917 prototype of the Sperry Aerial Torpedo is seen here on its launcher. -The Peter M. Bowers Collection, The Museum of Flight
  3. The Insitu Aerosonde Laima became the first UAV to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1998. It launched on its historic flight from the back of a car. -The Insitu Group

Want to learn more about UAVs?

Check out some of these resources

In Print:

  • McDaid, Hugh, and David Oliver. Smart Weapons: Top Secret History of Remote Controlled Airborne Weapons. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1997.
  • Newcome, Laurence R. Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Pen and Sword Aviation, 2004.
  • Whittle, Richard. "The Drone Started Here". Air & Space. May 2013.
  • Yenne, Bill. Attack of the Drones: A History of Unmanned Aerial Combat. Zenith Press, 2004.


UAV Trade Organizations: