Quadcopter flight is a concept that has been around for far longer than many people expect. However there’s considerable debate when determining exactly who was the first to develop functioning quadcopters. While the concept of pilot-less aircraft has been around in one form or another for over a century, when it comes to quadcopters a great deal depends upon how one chooses to define ‘what counts’. There are early examples of prototypes that fit the bill, but these were much different to the quad UAVs we know today.
Defining Quadcoptor Drones
Fixed wing remote controlled aircraft were primarily developed shortly after the Second world war to assist the USAF and RAF with remote controlled aerial gunnery practice. In the following decades this expanded through into helicopter craft, developed mainly by private enthusiasts. However the core difference between a remote controlled aircraft and a drone is that drones must have a degree of pilotless autonomy. If we take this definition as gospel, it rules out the vast majority of early experimental quadcopters. These demanded constant attention on the part of the ground pilot in order to remain airborne, and possessed none of the stabilizing or cruise features that are standard on contemporary models.
Taking this definition as gospel, it raises a major issue on what recent quad UAVs qualify for consideration as ‘drones’. For example a $20 palm sized quadcopter for indoor use is essentially actually a remote controlled aircraft – not a drone. Therefore we need to look into models and developers who have produced quadcopters with more advanced features capable of remaining in flight for periods without any direct supervision. As may be expected this raises considerable debate over what still qualifies as a drone, so now we’ll take a look at a few of the contenders.
Why Only Modern Quadcopters Qualify
It’s worth taking the time to make a quick caveat of why only contemporary – i.e models developed over the last decade – ought to be considered. This is because only since the mid-late 2000s have some quadcopters had the ability to perform roles such as automatic hovering, automatic gyroscopic wind adjustment and self controlled landings. While all drones are still dependent upon some form of piloting from the ground, these features add a great deal of automation to the flight process that firs the term ‘drone’.
The Two Realistic Contenders
Both the DJI ‘Phantom’ and the Parrot ‘AR’ Drones were developed around the same time. While the Phantom was released first, arguably the Parrot AR was prototype first so once more the waters are rather muddy when determining which made the first commercially viable, privately accessible aircraft that possesses the necessary qualities to match our definition of what a drone ought to be.
Both have been designed primarily to utilize on-board high quality cameras for taking aerial videos and photography, and as such have extensive stabilization ‘gimbal’ features. Both use sensors to measure and automatically adjust for wind speed and altitude, while are piloted via a range of options (smartphones/tablets and laptops). While they have startling different aesthetics, both make use of the exact same principles to control their flight systems as those theorized over a century ago – proving that the quadcopter concept can genuinely work.
But Who Invented Quadcopter Drones?
The simple truth is that there’s no cut and dry answer. Conceptually speaking you could go as far back as French and German designs in the 1920’s – but as for working drones it’s essential to look much more recently. As with much of the aerospace industry the fact of the matter is that technology develops usually as a combination of effort from multiple sources. Even today the best quadcopter drones do well to remain airborne for more than twenty minutes due to battery limits, but there’s likely going to be massive further progress on this issue in coming years.
For now the two cited examples are likely to be recognized as the first true quadcopter drones (even if the theory was already well proven), but unlike the Wright Brothers with winged flight, calling an exact individual or agency the true inventor of quadcopter drones is an argument that will likely rumble on for many years yet.