They have alway been here...and one could argue since the beginning of time.
UAVs...have been used for civilian and military use since mankind has lofted objects into the sky.
One could argue that the Chinese paved the way for UAV use with their deployment of kites for measuring distances between their armies and army lines in battle, and use of kites for communications, as surveyors for sieges, and possibly flying siege machines...using a pair of kites to lift a projectiles up a line to a set distance and then releasing it over a target. Also the Chinese are known to have has man carrying kites. Marco Polo notes them in his travels, and during the cornonation of Emperor Fo-Kin...both balloon [hot air balloons] ascent, and quasi parachute jumps [probably streamers or the famous bow chute...a large piece of cloth held between both hands] were done. This was done in the 14th century. [1300A.D.]
There is some new evidence and theories surrounding ancient egypt and model birds found in tombs over there. The Greeks were also working on concepts of flight in 400B.C. Mostly on the mechanical end.
On the consideration of kites being used to carry men, weapons, or signals...a countermeasure had to be developed. And my idea would be the concept of kite-fighting...a popular past-time even to this day...was developed to "intercept" cut the lines of hostile kites.
Roger Bacon [an English Franciscian Monk] in 1250 described artificial wings that beat the air...basically an ornithopther. [bird or wing machine, which actually has been flown recently.] Also one must suspect that he was using "Lost History" materials from before the Dark Age from the Classical and Roman Empire period that had been stored in ancient libraries.
Model helicopters are flown as toys in the 12th and into the 14th century, and some suspect the idea had been used even before that.
Bomb Carrying Kite is First illustrated in Europe 1326. It is a pennon type kite...and the fire bomb is released using a rope and pulley system and the kite is controlled by three soldiers. Considering that Cannons wouldn't make their first major combat appearance until the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. This is a major leap forward in conceptual warfare. And this manuscript by Walter de Milemete, may have influenced Da Vinci in some ways.
The first rocket powered airplane is design in 1420 by an Italian Joanes Fontana. [Remember pre-Da Vinci]
Da Vinci- 1452-1519.
1647- model ornithopter flown in the Court of King Wladyslaw IV.
And from there UAV technology is history.
Nicola Tesla is very important to UAV technology, because he developes the major component of radio control and communication. His first R/C Remote Control vehicle is also the first UWV...Unmanned Water Vehicle...a submarine!!!
The Austrians in August 22, 1849 use tethered hot air balloons with remote release systems to attack the defenders of Vienna. The bombs would be released by electronic signals from a ground position...it worked, although the wind tended to blow the balloons and their bomb back over Austrian lines during wind changes.
Then the break through.
September 12, 1916.
The Hewitt-Sperry radio-guided flying bomb is flight-tested in America.
Sperry was the inventor of the auto-pilot in 1914!
The war ends before the deployment of the Hewitt-Sperry and the Kettilbug R/C flying bombs.
It isn't until the shadows of World War II begin to grow that drones once again take flight, in the interwar period R/C modelling...the making and flying of minaturized remote control planes begins. In World War II drones do make some very spectacular or very unknown affects on the war. The Germans throw their V-1's at targets in England. Some are captured intact and then rebuilt by thousands by the Ford Motor Company! It was called the Republic-Ford JB-2. It was projected that the U.S. would be building 1000 a month to a total of 75,000 units. Yikes.
The Germans had the Mistral project, a wide variety of UGVs...unmanned ground vehicles. Goliath being the most notable. Guided Missiles.
The Allies had Project Aphrodite in which famously claimed the life of Joseph Kennedy in a mid air explosion. Project Oricon with its Skinnard Box trained pigeons guiding the missile by pecking at screens at a target. Project Fox however, used specifically designed "assault drones" aircraft packed with explosives or carrying ordnance to be used to attack enemies. The first actual UAV remote drone attack was done in 1944-1945, in which an assault drone carrying a torpedo...guided from a control craft nearly 20 miles away with a TV camera and screen system, successfully delivered and sunk a target destroyer. They were later used in attacks in and around the Solomon Islands till the close of World War II.
Post-World War II drones were used in the testing of the atomic and hydrogen bombs.
Vietnam era jet powered drones did reconnaisance overflights...and possibly...if those documents ever are revealed may have been used by the fledging CIA to conduct recon of the Soviet Union...in complement of U-2 flights.
The Predator inspired drone really doesn't get into the public imagination till about 1990. But, drones have been around for a long long long time. You just never really knew they were there, always flying above your heads...the entire time.
That would be a cool sci-fi idea...the drone gods...they make and destroy our world and rebuild anew...that would be very interesting.
Joshua S. Tribble 2013