Unmanned Aerial Systems are air vehicles and associated equipment that do not carry a human operator, but instead, are remotely piloted or fly autonomously. This type of equipment is commonly referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), and drones (International Trade Administration). They are most commonly referred to as “Drones.”

Drones have many different purposes including aviation, air defense, information technology, cyber security, and recreation. Recreational drone usage has diversified over the last decade and has provided people with different ways to make memories whether it be through video recordings, photography, or just flying as a hobby. But when did the ideas of drones begin and what were they intended for? Whose crazy idea was it to launch an unmanned flying object? The answer may be closer to home than you think.   

It is very well known that in 1903, the Wright brothers conducted the first successful flight of a heavier-than-air powered and controlled aircraft by a human (on board). However, flying machines’ history started long before 1903 and brings us from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Stafford County, Virginia.

In 1896, seven years before the Wright Brothers’ successful human flight, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, Samuel Langley, built and tested flying machines of his own. Langley’s Aerodrome No. 5 had its first successful flight on May 6, 1896 off the shores of the Potomac River in Stafford County. This was the first successful unmanned flight of an engine-driven, heavier-than-air vehicle. The aircraft was 30 pounds and had a wingspan of 14 feet, much different than the drones for sale at the local electronics store. Today, drones are much more complex than the cloth and wood device that was launched by Langley over 125 years ago.

Recently, the Stafford County Board of Supervised authorized matching funds to The Langley Flight Foundation in support of their efforts to build a replica of Langley’s Aerodrome No.5 to be displayed at the Stafford Regional Airport.

Stafford is on the leading edge of fostering technology and systems for today’s drone business. Together with the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation (VIPC), there is a leading effort to install and test a new generation of sensors that are smaller, more affordable for local airports to maintain, and provide the needed information about lower altitude operations, such as commercial small package delivery. Stafford County Airport, along with Warrenton and Winchester airports, is the lead site for testing these sensors and information-sharing capabilities in 2023. As the success grows, the Stafford County Airport is expected to be a leading hub for current applications like home delivery of medications and use of drones to improve public safety response, as well as longer-term goals like automated warehouse operations for package and cargo delivery, and routine transport of people that could reduce traffic on I-95.

The type of innovation that can get new drones and their associated technology off the ground is under development every day in Stafford County in both defense and cyber security. With the proximity to the nation’s capital and Marine Corps Base Quantico, it is no surprise that Stafford is connected to the UAS ecosystem and is primed for defense equipment and related unmanned systems companies to thrive. Along with defense, Stafford’s cyber security ecosystem is one of the best in the country. Driven by 35+ Cybersecurity and information security firms that call Stafford home, the industry is fueled by 15,000+ individuals working within 30 minutes. Along with defense and cyber security efforts, new drone and environmental monitoring systems are being tested and deployed across the Commonwealth with the support of VIPC at the Virginia Smart Community Testbed, located in Stafford.

From aerodromes to unmanned aerial systems, Stafford County is leading the way in innovation and aviation and has been since 1896. Stafford has played a huge part in the UAS ecosystem in the past 127 years and continues to contribute to the growing conversation surrounding unmanned aircraft.