A brief history of the word "drone"

Published on October 01, 2016

A brief history of the word "drone"

Original author: Brian Benchoff
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In the early 1930s, Reginald Denny, an English actor who lives in Los Angeles, saw a boy playing with an airplane powered by a rubber band. After he helped the boy adjust the gum and control surfaces of the aircraft, he crashed into the ground. Denny promised that he would build a new aircraft for the boy, and wrote a request to the manufacturer in New York. The first set to build the aircraft turned into a private hobby shop on Hollywood Boulevard, where Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda dropped in.

Business has evolved into Radioplane Co. Inc., in which Danny designed and built the first military-controlled military aircraft. In 1944, Captain Ronald Reagan from the first military film division of the US Air Force wanted to make a film about these devices, and sent the photographer David Conover to the Radioplane factory at Van Nuys Airport. There Conover met a girl named Norma Jean Dougherty, and persuaded her to go to the model. Later she will be known as Marilyn Monroe. The core of American culture from 1930 to 1960 was a hobby shop, smelling of balsa sawdust and air glue. Now at that place, at the exit of Highway 101, is the 7-Eleven store.

The science historian James Burke had a great TV show in the early 90s - Connections - in which the previous paragraphs would have come in handy. Unfortunately, the direction of development of society over the past 20 years has changed. The revolution in communications, allowing people to instantly exchange ideas, led only to the fact that people instantly exchange opinions. The story of how the Dutch East India Company led to a rubber band, then to Jimmy Stewart, then to the remote control, then to Ronald Reagan, then to the Death of a Salesman , there is one modern flaw: the need to use the word "drone" [drone (English) - drone].

The word "propaganda" acquired a negative connotation in the late 1930s - and now it is "public relations". “Global warming” does not evoke idiots in the winter, and now it is “climate change”. Quadcopter pilots do not want people to think that their flying machines can fire at their neighbors, and the word "drones" fell into the forbidden. Now they are quadcopters, tricopters, multikopter, flying wings, unmanned aerial vehicles with fixed wing geometry, UAVs, or toys.

It annoys me, as well as a reminder about it, which comes to me in the mail every time I use this harmful word in the letter "d". The etymology of the "drone" is not associated with peeping, shelling rockets of hospitals and illegal killings of American citizens. People love to argue, and I need to explain my point of view when someone once again complains about the wrong use of the word. Instead of an article about Hollywood stars, the first systems with remote control and model aircraft, you will receive an article on the etymology of the word. Sorry, the Internet, but you have no one to blame but yourself.


The article is devoted to the etymology of the word "drone". In all the articles and blog posts I read, the history of why the unmanned or remotely controlled aircraft itself was called the “drone” was missed. For example, many articles refer to the automatic aircraft Hewitt-Sperry [Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane], as the first "drone". It is not true. The word "drone" for the first time called an unmanned aircraft in late 1934 - early 1935, in an experiment of the First World War, which observers of the time could not call a drone.

Source of the word "drone", circa 1935

Before the word was used to describe an aircraft (LA), it had two meanings. The first is a deaf buzz, the second is a male bee. The drone does not work, does not collect honey, and exists only for the fertilization of the uterus. It is easy to understand why "drone" has become an ideal word for describing a quadrocopter. Phantom is brainless and sounds like a bee sack. Where did the third definition of "drone" come from - a flying machine without a pilot on board?

The most cited definition of the word “drone” comes from a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal [1], authored by linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer, who tracked this word until 1935. This year, US Admiral William H. Standley watched a British demonstration of a new unmanned aircraft, designed for training in the shooting of the royal fleet. It was based on the Tiger Moth biplane [De Havilland Tiger Moth], a training aircraft, a large number of which was built between the two wars, and then renamed the Queen Bee in English for bees, not the queen, but the queen . trans.]. The article implies that the word "drone" comes from the bee queen de Havilland. The etymology is then repeated in another article published shortly after World War II [2]:

Drones are not a new invention. Inventors experimented with them already 25 years ago. Before the war, small radio-controlled airplanes were used to protect against aviation — widely in England, where the word “drone” comes from, and less often here with us. The radio control technology used in the experiments was developed and improved to fit almost any type of conventional aircraft.

I found this obvious source of etymology from Ben Zimmer in five minutes, but it is not clear from him whether the name of the radio-controlled biplane Queen Bee derives from the word "drone", or vice versa. This etymology does not provide information about the technical capabilities or tactical use of these drones. A UAV, which was written in the New York Times, it would be better to call a cruise missile, not a drone. Was the Queen Bee an attacking drone, or just a device designed to practice shooting? These questions need to be answered before demanding from people playing with the Phantom that they “buzz otsedova.”

"Queen Bee" and Churchill

Linguistics is sometimes reflected in biology, and best of all in search of the history of drones will go to the history of the Queen Bee. Queen Bee - and this is not its original name - was born from the 18/33 specification of the Ministry of Air Force of Britain. At that time, the Ministry annually produced several specifications for various aircraft. Supermarine Spitfire was originally known as F.37 / 34; fighter, based on the thirty-seventh specification, released in 1934. From this it follows that the specification for a radio-controlled aircraft, which serves the purpose of firing the fleet, was to be issued in 1933. Drones, in the original sense, were not intended to attack. They were needed for firing, and with a similar goal they took up arms with the US fleet in 1936, and aviation in 1948. The question remains whether the name “drone” appeared before the Queen Bee,

The first drone target was built between 1933 and 1935 at the RAF Farnborough, combining the fuselage of the Great de Havilland Moth Major moth [de Havilland Moth Major] with the engine, wings and control of the de Havalland Tiger Moth [3]. The aircraft was tested at the air base, and later they launched Orion from the royal naval ship to practice shooting. The teams noticed a strange effect - the plane did not turn, did not change the pitch angle and did not roll, and did not change speed: it flew like a drone. When flying overhead, he made a loud, low hum. Dronom was called because of the buzz, and the Queen Bee was just the next pun.

The word "drone" did not come from the name of the Bee Queen of Havilland, since it was originally called the Big Moth and the Tiger Moth of Havilland. It is the “Uterus” that originated from the “drone”, and the “drone” - from the buzzing sound of an airplane flying overhead.

Training Shooting Drone 1936-1959

The word "drone" entered the lexicon of the US Navy in 1936 [4] shortly after the return of Admiral William Standley from Europe, where he watched as the Bee Queen beat down arrows from the warship Orion. From that moment on, the word began to be used in the US Navy, but officially this term will not be used by the army and air force for another ten years.

Since 1922, the aircraft's notation has been used in the USA to indicate its role and manufacturer. For example, the fourth (4) fighter (fighter, “F”), manufactured by Vought (“U”), was designated “F4U Corsair”. The first patrol bomber (patrol bomber, “PB”) from Consolidated (“Y”) was called “PBY Catalina”. In such a system, the “drone” appeared in 1936 as “TD” (target drone), the drone target — that is, the LA, designed for shooting practice.

Almost twenty years after the appearance of the word in military jargon, "drone" meant only a remote-controlled aircraft, designed for shooting practice. The B-17 and PB4Y bombers (B-24), for Operation Aphrodite and Operation Anvil, converted to radio controls, were called "suggestive bombs." Shortly after World War II, it’s likely with the help of the same personnel and technology that Aphrodite worked on the operation, the B-17s left over from the war were converted to shooting targets, and they were called target drones. Obviously, this word was used in this meaning until the late 1950s.

Drone QB-17, similar to that used in Operation Aphrodite

If you are looking for a suitable etymology and the definition of the modern meaning of the word "drone", then it is like that. Aircraft with a remote control that serves as a target for shooting practice. The drone has nothing to do with shooting at the civilian population or peering behind it from a height of 13 km. In the original sense of the word, the drone is an LA with a remote control specifically made for firing at it.

But the language is changing, and in order to successfully defend against the critics the use of the word “drone” to all remote-controlled aircraft, you will have to trace the use of the word right up to modern times.

Change the definition of "drone", 1960-1965

The word used for a quarter of a century is doomed to acquire additional meanings, and in the early 1960s the definition of a drone was expanded, from an aviotseli to a word that could also be referred to in retrospect as a German Fau-1 flying bomb . After all, it also served as a flying target during the Second World War for the British military.

The next development of the word can be found in the New York Times of November 19, 1964 [5], in an article by Pulitzer laureate Hanson V. Baldwin [Hanson W. Baldwin]. Over the next 20 years, since the public was introduced to the word “drone,” this aircraft has several more possibilities:

The drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, has been used for military and experimental purposes for more than 25 years. Since the days of the impressive V-1, a cruise missile, in World War II, advances in electronics and missile guidance systems have stimulated the development of drones that are not lagging behind manned vehicles in maneuverability.

A description of the capabilities of the drones extends to the fight against submarines, the observation of military operations, and the classic use as a target. And even in the aerospace industry, the definition of a drone changed from a very difficult target for shooting to something more useful.

In the early 1960s, NASA was tasked with sending a man to the moon. This required a docked spacecraft, and at that time no one knew how to achieve such a result using orbital mechanics. The company Martin Marietta solved this problem with the help of drones.

The task of docking in orbit had to be solved before traveling to the moon, and it was solved thanks to the Gemini program . Starting from it, astronauts began to conduct orbital meetings and docking with unmanned spacecraft launched a few hours or days earlier. Later missions used the engines of Agento increase the orbit and setting world height records. In early experiments with artificial gravity, Gemini's capsule was tied up with Agena and spun around a common center.

The unmanned spacecraft Agena Target Vehicle was not a drone. However, several years before these meetings and docking paved the way to the moon, engineers from Martin Marietta developed a method for docking two vehicles using a device that they called "drone" [6].

The Martin Marietta Patent No. 3,201,065 used a stand-alone remote-controlled spacecraft tied to Gemini's nose. Equipped with a tank of compressed gas, several shunting engines, and an electromagnet, this “docking drone” under the astronaut's control entered the docking cavity of the target device, activated the solenoid, and pulled the second device into the harness. This drone, like the drones of World War II, was controlled remotely. He was not able to fly, but he shows the expansion of the meaning of the word "drone" in the aerospace industry.

If you want to see an incredibly steep drone that did fly, all you have to do is turn to Lockheed D-21, an aircraft reconnaissance aircraft designed for flying over China at speeds of 3 Mach.

Carrier M-21 and drone D-21. M-21 - A type of reconnaissance LA A-12, the predecessor of the SR-71.

“D” in D-21 means “daughter”, and “M” in the name of the carrier M-21 - “mother”. And yet, contemporaries called the D-21 drone. Perhaps the D-21 was the first device, called the drone, designed exclusively for intelligence.

In the 1960s, drones learned not only to carry cameras. At the same time, the first attacking drone appeared - the first device, called the drone, and capable of dropping induced torpedoes into the ocean to fight enemy submarines.

Gyrodyne QH-50Also known as DASH, an anti-submarine helicopter [Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter] was used in the US Navy. At that time, the USSR built submarines faster than the US managed to build frigates to fight them. Older ships were not suitable for the deployment of full-size helicopters. The solution was a drone capable of taking off from the deck, flying several miles to a suspicious point on the radar and dropping a torpedo. It was the first attacking drone, UAV, equipped with weapons.

It was a relatively small coaxial remote-controlled helicopter. He could drag one torpedo at a distance of 30 km from the ship, and she already took upon herself everything else.

QH-50 was a historical wonder, born of two realities. The US Navy was equipped with anti-submarine ships capable of detecting Soviet submarines tens of kilometers away. But these ships did not have torpedoes with a range of action and a deck from which helicopters could take off. QH-50 became a compromise, but in less than 10 years new ships and more advanced torpedoes made it unnecessary. Unremarkable weapon platform, the QH-50 boasts that it was the first armed drone.

Language difficulties around 1965-2000

On June 13, 1963, an article in Reuters told about a British-Canadian joint venture to build unmanned observation aircraft. [7] A reporter with knowledge of the two previous decades of UAV development wrote that "this project was spoken of as a drone." By the mid-60s, the word drone acquired a modern meaning: any UAV used for any purpose and controlled in any way. This definition was soon supplanted by such names as “unmanned aircraft” and “remotely piloted vehicles”.

The term “drone” subsequently began to be supplanted by the new and more awkward name for “unmanned aircraft” [unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV]. The word used for everything from flying targets to spacecraft subsystems was gradually replaced. The term UAV first appeared publicly in the report of the US Department of Defense in 1972. The term "remotely piloted vehicles" [remotely piloted vehicle, RPV] first appeared in official documents in the late 1980s. Thousands of slightly different terms in the 60s, 70s and 80s originated from the word drone. And today, the “unmanned aerial system] is more often used in the FAA. And this phrase was thought up no more than 10 years ago.

Engineers built drones to observe communist China at a speed of 3 Mach. They patented a drone for docking spacecraft. For hunting and sinking of submarines. In the Air Force, they took old airplanes, painted them in orange and called them target drones. They spread across the surface of the earth, and they stopped calling them drones.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s, the term "drone" was applied to target airplanes, and with this meaning is used today. In the remaining areas of military use, a vast number, new terms for unmanned vehicles.

One can argue about why so many terms have appeared. The military and space industry has never been shy of the abundance of acronyms and a handful of random letter symbols scattered in reports in order to respect secrecy. Where does the enemy learn about our actions if we ourselves do not understand anything? The question whether new features of drones can justify a large number of new acronyms remains open. It seems that the new acronyms were simply invented by new captains, majors and engineers of the Pentagon or a dozen aerospace companies. By 1990, the "drone" replaced the UAV, RPV, UAS and dozens of other synonym phrases.

Modern drones, from October 21, 2001 to this day

The modern look of the drone is, of course, the MQ-1 Predator (from the English - “Predator”) from the company General Atomics, with the anti-tank missile AGM-114 “Hellfire” under each wing. Predator is difficult to confuse with something. His swollen nose barely accommodates a satellite dish. A small camera is hanging from the chin. Long thin wings as if stolen from a glider. A small screw is fastened right on the tail, and an unusual tail in the form of an inverted “V” gives the impression that this device cannot land without a catastrophe.

Its development began in the mid-1990s and was originally called the "unmanned aircraft" [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, UAV]. This changed on October 21, 2001, in an article in the Washingon Post by author Bob Woodward [Bob Woodward] entitled "The CIA told us to destroy Bin Laden by any means." In the article, the author returned the word "drone" to the people. [8] When describing the CIA-controlled Predator, Woodward, or having spoken with army officials who used the old term for the new apparatus, or, tired of acronym porridge, used the word “drone”.

If you do not like that the word "drone" was applied to the Phantom quadcopter, you can blame the two. The first is Hanson V. Baldwin, military editor of the New York Times. For 40 years of his career, he used the word "drone" to describe everything from target aircraft to cruise missiles. The second is Bob Woodward from the Washington Post. He was in charge of Watergate, and also reintroduced the word "drone".

An even shorter history of the word "drone" and arguments in its defense

The word "drone" was first used to describe UAVs in late 1934 and early 1935, since low flying biplanes sounded like a cloud of bees. 25 years the word was used only to refer to the aircraft used as targets. From the late 1950s and early 1960s, the definition of the “drone” was expanded, and all unmanned aerial vehicles were included in it, from cruise missiles to spacecraft. Around 1965, the acronyms UAV, RPV began to appear, either because of a more specific description of the apparatus, or because of an obsession with military abbreviations. In the late 1990s, the United States Air Force and the CIA began experiments with the Predator UAV and Hellfire missiles. The first use of these devices was recorded just a few weeks after the attacks of September 11. The platform became known as the “drone Predator” in 2001 thanks to Bob Woodward.

Most often, the word drone is asked not to use for everything, from racing quadcopters to UAVs with remote control and fixed wing, from the desire for linguistic purity. Debaters suggest using more accurate words to describe each type of aircraft. A quadcopter is a quadrocopter. Autonomous aircraft to test the pipeline - unmanned aircraft system.

The argument about linguistic purity does not work, since the word “drone” already called any conceivable aircraft. In the 1960s, the drone could mean a spacecraft or reconnaissance aircraft. In the 1940s, the drone designated the aircraft, indistinguishable from today's balsa airplane, with an internal combustion engine and remotely controlled. And in general, the drone originally meant "target drone" used for firing. So, okay, launch your drones, and I will go for my 12 gauge.

The argument that the word “drone” cannot be used to designate toys is broken down into a tautology. Critics argue that the drone can only be called a military aircraft, conducting intelligence or firing rockets. And, according to critics, since the meaning of a word is determined by its generally accepted use, the quadrocopter from Phantom cannot be called a drone. But critics forget that this quadrocopter was called a drone since its inception, and if the language is determined by frequent use, then of course the quadcopter can be called a drone.

Instead of playing with words, I turn to philosophical topics. For example, the original of this article is located on the Hackaday website, and for 30 years we have been aware that a “hacker” is a person hacking computer systems, stealing money from banks, publishing passwords on a darknet, and doing other illegal things. Other negative names are used to denote such activities. "Crackers" [crackers] - those who are engaged in hacking, "scripts" [script kiddies] are responsible for DDOS-attacks. And hackers, in general, are those who cause damage.

In this case, of course, we ourselves do not put such a narrow meaning in the word "hacker". This word is located on every page of the site, and the articles explain what we mean by it. Hacking is digging into firmware, looking for what can be achieved with the help of electronics, and which is not yet widely available.

On the Hackaday website, everyone has long understood that it’s impossible to impress people with thoroughness. It is impossible to attract to your side anybody who believes that hackers stole her personal data from Aunt Masha just by telling them that a hacker is a neutral term. It is always better to recognize the term than to try to reject it. We have understood this over the past ten years, and we hope that drones lovers will also be able to do this.


[1] www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324110404578625803736954968

[2] The 'Drone': Porter Of Push-Button War Hanson W Baldwin, Hanson W. “The 'Drone': Portent Of Push-Button War.” New York Times Magazine August 5, 1946: 10.

[3] Philip Birtles - Hane's Jane's - 1984

[4] Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN, 1963.

[5] for Drones, Baldwin, Hanson W. The New York Times November 19, 1964: 2.

[6] US Patent 3,201,065.

[7] Britain and Canada Plan A 'Spy Plane', (Reuters), The New York Times, 13 June , 1963: 5

[8] CIA Told to Do Whatever Necessary 'to Kill Bin Laden, Woodward, Bob. The Washington Post, 21 October, 2001.