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A Short History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Early UAVs Took the Form of Balloons

  • Montgolfier Balloon

    Montgolfier Balloon

    The Montgolfier brothers in France, were the first to experiment with balloons in 1782.

  • In preparation for their manned flights they sent unmanned aerostats aloft. During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, the Northern Union put incendiary devices on unmanned observation balloons and released them with the hopes of starting fires on the Southern Confederacy side of the battle lines.
  • Japan released high altitude balloons into the jet stream in 1944 with incendiary bombs attached. The mission was to start forest fires in North America.
  • The United States modified high altitude weather balloons in the early 1950’s under the top secret Project Gopher and Genetrix Strategic Reconnaissance Programs. The balloons were outfitted with automatically triggered cameras which were set to record wide angle views of the Soviet Union. The results of these free-drift missions was said to be partially successful.

History of Building UAVs

Aerial Steam Carriage

Aerial Steam Carriage

Most aeronautical experimenters built models of their designs in order to discover if they would work. This practice is still used today. John Stringfellow and William Henson from England combined their talents in 1848 to build a steam powered propeller driven model aircraft with a 10 foot wingspan called the Aerial Steam Carriage. This model successfully flew for a distance of approximately 60 yards.  Another Stringfellow model was flown on a wire guide inside the Crystal Palace of London in 1868. Eyewitnesses reported that the steam powered tri-winged aeroplane generated lift and only used the wire guide to keep from crashing into walls. The American experimenter Samuel Langley in 1896 successfully flew a steam powered model he called “Aerodrome Number 5” down the Potomac river for 3/4 of a mile.

The First Major American UAVs

Kettering Bug

Kettering Bug

The forerunner of today’s UAV is reported to be the American Navy Curtiss/Sperry “flying bomb“. This primitive cruise missile first flew on March 6, 1918. The Charles Kettering Aerial Torpedo, also known as the Kettering Bug, was a parallel effort backed by the American Army. Orville Wright acted as a consultant on the project. The “Bug” was a gasoline fueled propeller driven biplane which flew on a preset course for approximately 50 miles late in 1918. The guidance systems for both aircraft, composed of a gyroscope and barometer/altimeter were designed by Elmer Sperry.

The First Major German UAVs

Fiesler FI 103 V1

Fiesler FI 103 V1

The German Fiesler FI 103 V1, “Buzz Bomb” or “Doodle Bug” of 1944, was the first successful cruise missile. This ram jet powered weapon traveled at speeds up to 400 mph and was able to strike London from launch sites in France. Germany also developed and used the Henschel Hs 293 and Fritz-X radio controlled glide bombs. These weapons were launched in midair from a controlling mother ship and steered to the target by radio commands made by a human operator. On Sept.9, 1943, the Italian battleship Roma was sunk by two Fritz-X bombs.

WWII US Remote Controlled Flying Bombs

Interstate BQ-4/TDR

Interstate BQ-4/TDR

The United States also developed remotely controlled flying bombs during the Second World War. In  April of 1942 an Interstate BQ-4/TDR(TDN) drone aircraft was successfully guided into a target ship using a TV camera mounted in the nose for steering. Operations with the BQ-4 in 1944 resulted in 18 hits on Japanese targets.

1950 -1970 US UAV Programs

Lockheed D-21

Lockheed D-21

The 1950’s and 1960’s saw the advancement of UAV mission parameters, propulsion and guidance systems. The US Navy and Air Force started programs to convert surplus aircraft into target drones. These programs continue to this day. Purpose designed and built target drones such as the Ryan Firebee series of jet propelled UAVs first appeared in the early 1950’s. This drone, as UAVs were called in those days, was eventually converted into one of the first surveillance platforms.

One of the first nuclear armed UAVs was the Northrup SM-62 Snark cruise missile which became operational in 1960. Most of the UAVs from this era suffered from  reliability issues centered around their navigation and guidance systems.

The Lockheed D-21 mach 3+ reconnaissance drone was intended to be air-launched from the back of the mach 3 M-21 interceptor. The drone was stealthy and hard to observe on radar but was plagued by technical problems. The program was canceled in 1971.

UAVs In Modern Warfare

RQ-4 Global Hawk

RQ-4 Global Hawk

The development of UAVs continued in fits and starts with some military commanders questioning their usefulness. The attitude towards UAVs changed with the Israeli Air Force’s stunning victory over the Syrian Air Force in 1982. Israel’s coordinated use of manned and unmanned aircraft allowed them to destroy 86 Syrian aircraft in a short time over the Bekaa Valley with minimal losses. Israeli drones were used as electronic decoys, electronic jammers and provided real-time surveillance. It could be argued that this campaign ushered in the modern era of the UAV. These expensive and unreliable “toys” had come of age.

When the Persian Gulf erupted in “Desert Storm” in 1991 the UAV had a definite role to play on a tactical level. Since that time the UAV has become strategic in some instances with the expanding reconnaissance coverage provided by platforms such as the “Global Hawk“. This system can provide information that was once only possible to gather with satellites or high flying manned aircraft.

Since the first Gulf War there has not been a conflict where UAVs were not deployed. The global war on terrorism has seen the expanding use of all forms of UAVs. In 2002 a Hellfire missile was successfully launched from a “Predator” UAV at a moving car containing an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen.

Rotary Winged UAV Systems

MQ-8 Fire Scout

MQ-8 Fire Scout

Until the last 10 years all UAVs were of the fixed-wing configuration. One of the ultimate goals for UAV research was to create a rotary-winged UAV that did not need the special skills of a helicopter pilot to fly it. The full sized RQ-8 Fire Scout has recently fired missiles at targets and achieved good results. The mini-sized Draganflyer X6 Helicopter uses GPS guidance, is capable of autonomous flight, man portable and deployable in under one half minute and can carry a variety of HD cameras in an urban setting while being almost silent as it flies on electric power.

What’s Next in UAVs

Draganflyer X6 UAV Helicopter

Draganflyer X6 UAV Helicopter

UAVs have gone from being curiosities to practical autonomous systems which are as big as small airliners or the size of insects. The field of micro UAVs is the hottest area of aeronautical development at the present. What was once thought of as being a “good idea” but beyond the practical limitations of available technology has now become commonplace. It is expected civilian operators of UAVs will out number the military ones in the near future. The list of applications for UAVs keeps growing.

Article written by: Cam Tetrault

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