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’. 




The Aerial Target, a British radio-controlled aircraft from the First World War. Its remote control components, which were designed by Dr Archibald Low, are part of IWM’s collection (see AIR 567 to AIR 571). It became the first drone to fly under control when it was tested in March 1917. The pilot on this occasion was the future world speed record holder Henry Segrave.



The Queen Bee

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Captain David Margesson, Secretary of State for War, watching preparations being made for the launch of a De Havilland Queen Bee seaplane L5984 from its ramp. The Queen Bee pilotless target drone was a radio-controlled version of the Tiger Moth trainer.


Drone prototype

A remote-controlled drone prototype based on a B-17 Flying Fortress airframe takes off from Hilo Naval Air Station in Hawaii 6 August 1946, to fly to Muroc Army Air Field, California, remotely controlled by United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) personnel nearby. This 2,600-mile journey involved two of these prototypes, taking almost 15 hours and setting a new endurance record for remote controlled aircraft.


Drone trial

The first Canberra U Mk 10 jet plane which was to be used as a pilotless drone aircraft in the Seaslug guided missile trials from HMS Girdle Ness, the Royal Navy’s guided weapons trial ship based at Malta, in 1961.


The SDI surveillance drone system

A drone of the SDI surveillance drone system, used by the Royal Artillery, is given a pre-launch check at Larkhill in Wiltshire, England, May 1962. This was the first of a family of new drones acquired by the Royal Artillery in the 1960s to extend observation over the battlefield and to locate targets for new long range weapons.


RPV testing

Two British soldiers prepare to launch a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) drone from a Bedford three-ton truck on exercise in Germany, probably in the early 1980s. The men, kneeling several yards away from the vehicle, control the drone through a remote keypad and joystick.


Midge drone

A technician serving with a Royal Artillery divisional locating battery checks the launch mechanism of a British Army Canadair RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) Midge Surveillance Drone. The rocket powered Midge Drone was designed to carry out aerial photo reconnaissance on a pre-programmed flight. It was equipped with a single camera loaded with either black and white photographic film (daylight missions) or infra-red (night missions). 


Reconnaissance drone

A pilotless drone aircraft designed for reconnaissance and artillery spotting used by British forces in the Gulf War, 1991.


Watchkeeper drone

A British Watchkeeper UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) at Camp Bastion, the principal British base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during Operation Herrick XVI (H16), August 2012. This UAV was operated by 32 Regiment, Royal Artillery for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR). 

drone pods at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire
RAF, Waddington, Lincolnshire

Today’s drones

An exterior view of pods at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire from which MQ-9 Reaper unpiloted aircraft are operated.

MQ-9 Reaper, RAF Waddington
RAF, MQ-9 Reaper, Waddington

MQ-9 Reaper

The interior of a pod at RAF Waddington from where the pilot (left) and sensor operator (right) fly an MQ-9 Reaper unpiloted aircraft on missions as part of Operation Shader. The Reaper is used for surveillance and reconnaissance, but is also armed for airstrikes. 

Pakistan-born, US-based artist Mahwish Chishty held her first UK exhibition at IWM London. Chishty’s work combines silhouettes of military drones with decorative Pakistani folk art patterns to highlight the way in which the presence of foreign drones over Pakistan has become a feature of the physical, psychological and cultural environment of the country.

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