Paper on History, Adoption, and Sociopolitical Impact of Drones


Drones are the technology of focus in this paper. Technically, drones are remotely-piloted vehicles (RPVs), although popular usage of the term refers to land vehicles controlled remotely (robots). In the modern society, a significant share of RPVs serve as flying drones (Gray, 2018). The choice to review drone technology in this paper is relevant owing to its proliferation in the modern society. Gray (2018) observes that drones have become pervasive as a technology in the society over a century after its invention. Decades of military and industrial development have fostered the maturity of drone technology for incorporation in different aspects of the lives of human societies. The proliferation of this technology throughout the society warrants the need to understand their history, the ways of their adoption, and their sociopolitical impact.

History of Drones

Gray (2018) notes that the development of drones as a technology is traceable back to the Teleautomaton by Nikola Tesla, which was a miniature ship controlled through radio signals patented in 1898. The teleautomaton introduced a novel age of technology that combined robotic machines and radio signaling. In 1898, Nikola Tesla applied radio waves to control and direct the movements of a robot boat in a pool of water. Analysts consider this instance, which was essentially a presentation by Tesla in an electrical exhibition in Madison Square Garden, New York, as the birth of robot and robotic technology. Nonetheless, despite Tesla’s patenting of the technology, “drone” as a term had originated in a military context, from the name that the military assigned to airplane-towed targets (Gray, 2018). Generally, while drone programs existed practically during World War II, the technology has only become a part of the society in recent times, applying in both civilian and military spheres.

Early in the 20th century, the use of drone technology applied primarily in military contexts. The early years of drone use in the U.S. military served as an extension of, rather than a break from, war practices (Gray, 2018). Kindervater (2016) notes that the early years of drone technology use served the military purposes of enhancing efficiency in combat and addressing the threats that enemies presented. The history of drones and their use traces alongside, and even predates, that of manned aircraft. Programs in the development of drone technology demonstrated the desired goals of application in war and efforts to address the challenges faced in efforts to achieve these goals.  The wider context of these programs was a radically changing landscape of modern warfare, especially in terms of the scope and range of deployed technologies of killing and the spaces in which the conflicts occurred. Kindervater (2016) observes that a key part of these developments was the extension of the battlefield into the air. World War II was an exemplary of the “traditional” modern war, featuring territories, aims, and targets that were relatively fixed and defined. Nonetheless, western powers focused on understanding and developing the concepts and practices of tactical and strategic bombing. In this context, early drone programs largely reflected focus on working out the possibilities of aerial bombing, rather than unmanned or manned technologies.

The Larynx and the Ram were two major early projects in the UK that produced different conceptions of the use of unmanned aircrafts as weapons of war. The Larynx was initially a mechanically controlled aircraft that flew on a predetermined path to “home” in on a target and drop bombs or dive into the target at the end of its flight (normally 200-500 miles) (Kindervater, 2016). In contrast, the Ram was smaller, designed for wireless control by an operator in a manned aircraft that flew near it. The Ram could “ram” (hence its name) into the air formations of enemies and act as a decoy to draw enemy fire while piloted aircraft remained at a safe distance. Owing to budgeting priorities, the development of this technology was inconsistent, while the achievement of a sufficient degree of accuracy from the weapons remained an important challenge.

These programs served to promote the concept of drone use in military contexts. First, they extended the range and kind of attack, reflected the objective of limiting the risk to the life of the pilot, and addressed the concerns of flying at night and in poor weather conditions for human pilots. Military leaders also perceived a “moral” effect on the enemy owing to the surprising element of using unmanned aircraft (Kindervater, 2016). The UK military continued tests in 1925 and 1928 with mixed results. The tests experienced challenges relating to the wireless control of the aircraft at great distances, thereby influencing inconsistencies in the technology’s development and promoting greater focus on the development of long-range missiles.

While research on drone technology halted briefly following World War II, it reemerged in the U.S. with a radically new conceptualization of the drone. This conception was the use of the drone as a tool for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) (Kindervater, 2016). The U.S. government developed the drone as a part of the technology useful in gathering a broad range of intelligence data electronically, through photographic imagery, radar, and electronic signals, generally. The use of this technology in these terms occurred in the context of the Cold War. While ISR has always been a significant part of warfare, information took on a new tactical and strategic role following World War II. The influence of challenges and objectives during the Cold War promoted the growth of signals intelligence, thereby influencing emphasis on the gathering of huge quantities of data in different forms (Kindervater, 2016). The U.S. further sought to intercept, destroy, and/or fool enemy radar and other electronic communications, using drone technology. Vanderburg (2016) observes that in a militarized state, drones serve the dual purpose of watching (surveillance) and destroying. They are essentially a means for the collection of visual signals detection of heat, moisture, etc., and the recording of radiation, space, and sound. In the modern military setting, the distinctive popularity of use of drones relates to their abilities to mobilize the practices of ISR and lethal targeting (Kindervater, 2016). In essence, the reason for the military’s desire for drones that could kill people was to replace human beings in the cockpit and remove the risk to the human pilot in the effort to bomb or target enemies lethally. The capacity that the drones provided for the military to target and destroy objects at a distance while removing the human being from the operation was highly appealing for their development. Kindervater (2016) notes that a linkage between surveillance and killing has been a central objective of military strategy in the West.

The principal objective for reinvestment in drone technology programs related to the success and failures of the U-2 spy plane, which carried sensors. The objective of penetrating Soviet territory while avoiding surface-to-air missiles necessitated a technology that could fly at a high altitude and later fly with stealth. In response to the need to address the risk of planes coming down in Soviet territory , American companies such as Lockheed and Ryan Aeronautical started developing prototype drones in the 1950s. This effort focused on “taking the cockpit out of the plane” and allowing the pilot to fly the vehicle from the ground (Kindervater, 2016). Over the following years, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored the development of long-range and short-range reconnaissance drones, using them to identify and map the missile sites of enemies and take photographs on pre-programmed missions. Kindervater (2016) notes that during the Vietnam War, the U.S. utilized about 3,000 mission flights.

Over the next decades, research and development programs targeted the predatory and dynamic targeting aspects of use of the technology, including surgical strike operations (as applied over Kosovo). This focus on swift and effective strikes from the air involved the rationale that the U.S. could engage on behalf of others while limiting risks to itself and its personnel. In the 1990s, the Defense ministry invested on development of high altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, thereby laying the foundation for the drone systems in use today. Drones adopted persistent or loitering surveillance capabilities and applied for a broader range of military activities, including the monitoring of peace-keeping operations and enforcement of treaties. In the Afghanistan war and following the 9/11 attacks, drone use became an essential cornerstone of the U.S. military strategy (Elish, 2017). This is because of the value of the technology in providing precision and presenting a human-less landscape for warfare especially in the context of rough terrain in Afghanistan and the risk of fire from enemies in a foreign land.

Adoption of Drone Technology in Areas Other Than Military Operations

In the modern society, the use of drones has expanded broadly beyond the battlefield or military context. West et al. (2019) note that the rapid pace of technological development has outpaced the ability of governments to regulate it. In recent years, law enforcement agencies such as that in Los Angeles have focused on the use of the technology in their operations. The rationale for application of drone technology in law enforcement relates to the desire to attain permanent police presence over a territory for the governance and ordering of a population (Kindervater, 2016). The attempts of the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate private use of the technology has encountered various successful and protracted lawsuits by enthusiasts of the technology. Public policy makers are increasingly aware of the need for regulation of both private and public (government) use of drones, especially in the context of the need to balance the concerns of the public with the interests of drone users and government agencies (West et al., 2019). Since the 1990s, there has been growing interest in the use of drones outside military contexts for government, recreational, and commercial purposes. In law enforcement, drone use has applied in the past few years for management of traffic, photography on scenes of crime, search and rescue purposes, aerial views of fires, and mass evacuations. These uses have attracted controversy and concerns in the public sphere. West et al. (2019) note that currently, 347 local and state police, fire, sheriff, and emergency agencies across 43 states in the U.S. utilize unmanned aerial drones.

From the perspective of commercial use, West et al. (2019) note the estimations of analysts that the global market for commercial drones is worth $127b. The Federal Aviation Authority estimates that about 420,000 commercial drones will be in operation by 2021. The focus of drone use in commercial contexts is the belief among retailers that drones present a revolution in the delivery of products by making the process cheaper and faster, and hence more efficient. Late in 2016, Amazon utilized a drone to make a delivery in what it anticipated to be a milestone for the use of unmanned vehicles to transform the experience of customers in buying and receiving products (Giones & Brem, 2017). Nonetheless, restrictive regulations, such as use of the technology at night, speed and altitude limitations, and limitations of operations in the vicinity of airports, have threatened the use of this technology in commercial settings (West et al., 2019; Canis, 2015). Other uses of drones relate to recreation, with recreational customers purchasing the technology for pleasure.


Social Impact of Drones

The emergence of drone use among civilians has been the outcome of evolution in technology and changes in perception of the technology in the market. Incremental shifts and improvements in technology and changes to the meaning of the technology (for instance, through additions of camera to take scenic pictures and the use of camera drones in movie production in Hollywood) have influenced meaning-driven innovations (besides demand-pull and technology-push innovations) (Giones & Brem, 2017). These innovations have provided new opportunities and influenced the popularization of civilian drones. The new technologies have given new meaning to drone technology and its use as toys for purposes of individual entertainment and as tools for the performance of specific tasks and functions (Giones & Brem, 2017).

Drones with a short range capacity, and those mounted with cameras or video-capturing technology, are the common versions used for commercial and recreational purposes. With advancing technology, the impact of drones on the society is likely to grow. Some of the popular uses of drones in commercial and civilian contexts include window-washing, product promotion, entertainment, and light shows (Cohn et al., 2017). Another aspect that is still under development is that of drones equipped with video and radio signal and bandwidth capacities for connectivity. On a small scale, drones are in use for the movement of objects, such as the delivery of products in industrial settings.

From a sociopolitical perspective, West et al. (2019) observe the increasing awareness among policymakers about the need to regulate the use of drones both privately and by governments. Nonetheless, the reaction of the public is an important factor in this regulatory control because of the critical role of sufficient public input in the success of any developed policies. In this context, policymakers have the obligation to balance between the concerns of the general public, government agencies, and users of drones. As noted earlier, technological development has outpaced the government’s ability to regulate it, while the authorities with the authority to regulate the technology, and how to do this, are often unknown (West et al., 2019). The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 tasked the Federal Aviation Authority with the responsibility of integrating drones into the country’s airspace. Nonetheless, while some advocacy groups have supported robust regulation of drones, others have favored a more flexible approach for non-governmental experimentation. Policymaking on regulation of the technology is evolving, but the public has little input in the process. Generally, the public has been reluctant to allow or support the use of drones in law enforcement or the “heavy-handed” regulation of the private use of drones by the government (West et al., 2019). At the local level, drone regulation has been varied and essentially patchwork, but local authorities face the problem of possible pre-emption of their policies at the state level.

In terms of public opinion, West et al. (2019) note the findings of research that the American public is unenthusiastic about the introduction of non-military drones for commercial and personal use. Public acceptance of the use of aerial drones is largely contextual, depending on the specific areas of application. National survey have nevertheless found support for the use of aerial drones in contexts of law enforcement, especially in relation to the solution and deterrence of crime, control of illegal immigration, tracking down escaped criminals/prisoners, and in rescue and search operations. The democratic element of the U.S. political system promotes the consideration of public preferences and input in the process of policymaking, particularly since ignorance of this input could cause electoral backlash. At the local level, well-intentioned policies could provoke public protest, especially in areas relating to the fear of losing privacy, and personal freedoms.

The use of drones commercially and in military and civilian settings is likely to alter the operations of industries and the society’s processes dramatically. The advancement of technology displaces the prevailing methods and norms in a society and industry, allowing the development of new perceptions, uses, and opportunities. The proliferation of drones is likely to alter the attitudes and behaviors of society members and affect their daily lives significantly (Zarvrsnik, 2015). At the same time, it is likely to challenge the traditional ideas of security, privacy, safety, regulation, and liability owing to the ability that the technology provides to collect data, conduct business and relationships, and engage with one another at all levels of the society (among individuals, communities, societies, and nations) more efficiently and conveniently (Rao, Gopi, & Maione, 2016; Elias, 2012). In effect, policymakers, societies, and individuals shall need to adapt their attitudes, behaviors, and cultures to accommodate the effects of use of this technology.

Personal perspective

As the assessment above illustrates, the development and implementation of policies and regulations against drone use are subject to different variables, including the need to balance the interests and need of governments, national security, private users, and law enforcement. As West et al. (2019) note, Americans support the use of drones in law enforcement, especially in relation to the solution and deterrence of crime, control of illegal immigration, tracking down escaped criminals/prisoners, and in rescue and search operations. Nonetheless, the fear of political backlash among political leaders is likely to influence their submission to the interests of the public in regulation of the use of drones. I think that the democratic element of American democracy presents a strong challenge for the development and implementation of objective and well-meaning drone use policies targeting public security and social wellbeing because of the possibility of provoking local protests relating to efforts to protect personal freedoms. I think that government authorities have to focus on building a broad consensus on a regime of regulation of drones that is appropriate and widely acceptable if policymaking on the issue is to be successful and sustainable.


The review above illustrates that drone technology has undergone a long history of development since the turn of the 20th century. While early uses of the technology emphasized on military applications, the technology has become more prevalent in commercial and civilian spheres in the past few decades. This extension of the technology’s applications in diverse spheres of the modern society is likely to cause dramatic changes in the operations of industries and the society’s processes, along with the attitudes, behaviors, and lives of society members. The technology’s effect of challenging the traditional ideas of security, privacy, safety, regulation, and liability shall influence the need for policymakers, societies, and individuals to adapt their attitudes, behaviors, and cultures in ways that can accommodate these effects.



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