Tech Time Warp of the Week: The 1940s RC Copter That Paved the Way for Amazon’s Drones

This week the Federal Aviation Administration gave Amazon a green light to test its drone delivery program. It could be years before you can actually have a quadcopter drop off your Amazon orders, assuming that it ever happens at all. But it’s impressive that it’s even a possibility considering that only a few decades ago, the idea of stable helicopter flight was a novel idea.

The helicopter wasn’t invented by any single person. Simple propeller-based toys were used in China as far back as 400 BC, and many inventors built motorized versions over the years. But it was philosopher and mathematician Arthur M. Young who invented the first helicopter that was actually useful.

In the video above, an excerpt from the BBC documentary The Century of Flight, you can see him demonstrating one of the world’s first remote-controlled model helicopters. Yes, it was connected to a wire, which would have made it less fun than flying one of today’s iPhone-controlled drones, but this was 1941, decades before the radio-controlled model aircraft became widely available. And this was no toy.

Young was using this model to test his ideas for a stabilizing bar that, when applied to a larger craft, would finally make them stable enough to pilot. As you can see from the video, it wasn’t easy to translate the smaller model to a full-sized craft. But later tests went well enough that the Bell Aircraft Company acquired Young’s patents and hired him to further develop the concept.

In 1946, Young’s Model 7 became the first helicopter awarded a commercial license by the the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor, the Civil Aeronautics Administration.

The difference between today’s aerial drones and the remote controlled aircraft of yesteryear is debatable. But there’s some consensus that in order to be considered a drone, an aircraft must include some form of autopilot, a feature generally lacking in older remote control aircraft. In other words, you could argue that today’s aerial drones are remote control helicopters, but that not all remote control helicopters are drones. By those lights, the first drone may actually have been the RAE Larynx, a British pilotless aircraft. But while Young’s remote controlled helicopter might not have been a drone, it’s hard to imagine the development of helicopters, and ultimately the quadcopter drones of today, without him.

In 1947, Young left the aircraft industry and dedicated his life to philosophy. He died in 1995, but an organization dedicated to preserving his work has collected several lectures and a short documentary about his work on YouTube.

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