A Short History of Unmanned & Hobbyist Flight
The first demo of a Radio Controlled vehicle was in 1898, when N. Tesla showed a working R/C boat at an electrical expo at Madison Square Garden. He claimed the boat had a “borrowed mind” and obtained U.S. patent number 613,809 for various R/C schemes.
Tesla’s R/C Robotic Boat
Some hobbyists may remember building balsa wood airplanes many years ago. In fact, they remain quite popular today. It often took months to build these planes and the final results were quite impressive, but extremely fragile. Many were never flown – the completed plane with paint and decals graced many a man cave. Others installed small gas engines to drive the propellers and ran the planes in a circle, tethered to the ground with a rope. More daring hobbyists set up the planes so they would fly circles and land when they ran out of gas. Suffice it to say that one crash or bad landing often destroyed hundreds of hours of hard and meticulous work.
By the 1960’s, radio controlled wing surfaces and rudders were allowing better control of the aircraft and the invention of the transistor meant that radio and other electronic components could be made much smaller and lighter. At the same time, another method of flight became quite popular – model rocketry. These were quite sophisticated and able to travel thousands of feet into the sky. Some of the models featured one-shot film cameras, which provided a great addition to the hobby. Others carried payloads, including small animals. In fact, your friendly author has sent mice up 1,000 feet or more in padded capsules, with all returning safely to earth by parachute. The Space Craze bought on by America’s race to the moon, created a new generation of budding engineers and scientists.
As mentioned earlier, it is the coming together of all the various electronic and electric technologies, from batteries to radios to advanced sensors, which now allows for much more sophisticated vehicles. Just as importantly, improvements in materials such as foam, carbon fiber and fiberglass have allowed for aerial vehicles which last more than a few flights. Some quadcopters can drop out of the sky from 100 feet and suffer little or no damage!
Whereas early models required skill and determination to build, fix and operate, some current models can be purchased and enjoyed by almost anyone – with some caveats (more on that later).
The First Quadcopter
The de Bothezat helicopter, also known as the Jerome-de Bothezat Flying Octopus, was an experimental quadrotor helicopter built for the United States Army Air Service by George de Bothezat in the early 1920s, and was said at the time to be the first successful helicopter. Although its four massive six-bladed rotors allowed the craft to successfully fly, it suffered from complexity, control difficulties, and high pilot workload, and was reportedly only capable of forwards flight in a favorable wind. The Army canceled the program in 1924, and the aircraft was scrapped.
The de Bothezat Helicopter