Why are these 21st century autonomous vehicles called drones? Why was this zoology inspired name chosen for this kind of technology? And who was the first to call this technology by this name?
Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently traced "The Flight of 'Drone' From Bees to Planes" in the Wall Street Journal. Drones were first bees, or something making a buzzing sound. In the 20th century, remote control aircraft were named drones, used by the military for training.
Bees also played a key role in the use of "drone" for early radio-controlled aircraft, but for other reasons. The military historian Steven Zaloga, author of the 2008 book "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," explained the source of the term in a recent letter to Defense News.
In 1935, U.S. Adm. William H. Standley saw a British demonstration of the Royal Navy's new remote-control aircraft for target practice, the DH 82B Queen Bee. Back stateside, Standley charged Commander Delmer Fahrney with developing something similar for the Navy. "Fahrney adopted the name 'drone' to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee," Mr. Zaloga wrote. The term fit, as a drone could only function when controlled by an operator on the ground or in a "mother" plane.
During World War II, the Army and Navy stepped up production of "target drones" for practice and "assault drones" for combat. One pioneer in the field was the British actor Reginald Denny, whose model-plane hobby led him to found the Radioplane Company. The Army placed orders for Denny's DENN +1.43% creation, which it called the OQ-2. The Navy had its own contract and called the vehicle the TDD-1, short for "Target Drone Denny 1."
OED has the first occurrence in 1946:
b. A pilotless aircraft or missile directed by remote control. Also attrib.
1946 in Amer. Speech (1947) 22 228/2 The Navy's drones will be..led—by radio control, of course—to a landing field at Roi.
1946 in Amer. Speech (1947) 22 228/2 The drone planes.
The word could be related to sound drone of drone bees, as the engine or motor of such a machine is likely to be a drone...
A continued deep monotonous sound of humming or buzzing, as that of the bass of the bagpipe, the humming of a fly, or the like.
...but drone bees are effectively disposable: they exist to do a single job after which their usefulness is probably outlasted. While a drone vehicle may well be reusable, if at all possible, its loss is far less costly than losing a fully-fledged machine with a pilot/driver on board and it too is effectively disposable.
Note that most drone vehicles are not entirely autonomous; generally they are remote-controlled. Advances in technology will allow more autonomy and on-board automated decision-making.
My contribution is a speculation. German word for male bee is "die Drohne". During WWII, Germany developed a jet-powered UAV called V1, in essence a flying bomb, which then severely terrorized London. It seems to me quite probably that the nickname for this disposable vehicle with only one purpose and only one flight in its life was just this. Then, as Germans have been involved in the post-war aerospace projects in the US, inevitably including UAVs, they may have injected usage of the word drone through US military into the general public. Besides, the very characteristic sound of V1, due to the pulse-jet engine, resembles bee/bumblebee deep tone much closer that sound of other drones.