When most people think unmanned aerial vehicles, they are more than likely thinking of the CIA’s new weapon of choice the Predator drones. And because of that association, often think of this technological advancement as a recent one.
The truth however is that devices as rudimentary as balloons laden with explosives were launched by both sides during the American Civil War, and even more recently during World War II by the Japanese. Allied forces at the time even tried a type of UAV called Operation Aphrodite, which entailed having a pilot take an aircraft up to a cruising altitude, before handing control of the plane over to a shadowing aircraft which would in turn then guide that plane by radio like it would a cruise missile into the intended target. The pilot meanwhile would bail out, and would have to make their way back to safety after parachuting to the ground.
In fact, the earliest you could probably say a drone was capable of remotely taking off and landing, would be during the Vietnam War when advancements in miniaturization allowed for this type of technology – though these vehicles were also largely limited in use to surveillance, while Desert Storm seems to hold the distinction as the first time troops have surrendered to a UAV.
While current models are capable of staying up in the air for upwards of 40 hours and delivering a barrage of weaponry, further miniaturization for surveillance in the urban environment seems to be where the technology is heading. All such developments however are owed to Israel who develop UAVs aggressively.