The History of Drone Warfare

Unmanned Aircraft: From Invention to Weapon of Choice

UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (drone) attack
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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have allowed U.S. military forces to turn the tide in numerous overseas conflicts as well as in the fight against terrorism without risking military personnel. They have a storied past that dates back centuries. While the history of drones is fascinating, not everyone is a fan of these stealthy, unmanned aircraft. While drones are a big hit among hobbyists, providing a wonderful vantage point from which to capture breathtaking aerial video footage, some people are understandably worried about the invasion of privacy as the craft sail over private property. Not only that, as evolving technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, lethal, and accessible to the masses there's a rising concern that drones can and will be used against us by our enemies.

Tesla’s Vision

Inventor Nikola Telsa was the first to foresee the coming of militarized unmanned vehicles. In fact, they were just one of several predictions he made while speculating on potential uses for a remote control system he was developing. In the 1898 patent “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles” (No. 613,809), Telsa described, with remarkable prescience, the wide range of possibilities for his new radio-control technology:

"The invention which I have described will prove useful in many ways. Vessels or vehicles of any suitable kind may be used, as life, despatch, or pilot boats or the like, or for carrying letters packages, provisions, instruments, objects… but the greatest value of my invention will result from its effect upon warfare and armaments, for by reason of its certain and unlimited destructiveness it will tend to bring about and maintain permanent peace among nations."

About three months after filing his patent, Tesla gave the world a glimpse of the possibilities of radio wave technology at the annual Electrical Exhibition held at Madison Square Garden. Before a stunned audience, Tesla demonstrated a control box that transmitted radio signals used to maneuver a toy boat through a pool of water. Outside of a handful of inventors who'd already been experimenting with them, few people even knew about the existence of radio waves at the time. 

The Miltary Enlists Unmanned Aircraft 

Drones have been used in a variety of military capacities: early efforts at eye-in-the-sky reconnaissance, “aerial torpedoes” during World War II, and as armed aircraft in the war in Afghanistan. Even as far back as Tesla's time, his contemporaries in the armed forces were beginning to see how remotely-controlled vehicles might be used to gain certain strategic advantages. For example, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. military was able to deploy camera-equipped kites to take some of the first aerial surveillance photographs of enemy fortifications. (An even earlier example of military use of unmanned aircraft—albeit not radio-controlled—took place during an 1849 attack on Venice by Austrian forces using balloons packed with explosives.)

Improving the Prototype: Directive Gyroscopes

While the idea of unmanned craft showed definite promise for combat applications, it wasn’t until around World War I that military forces began to experiment with ways to further Tesla’s initial vision and attempt to integrate radio-controlled systems into various types of unmanned aircraft. One of the earliest efforts was the 1917 Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, a costly and elaborate collaboration between the U.S. Navy and inventors Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt to develop a radio-controlled airplane that could be used as a pilotless bomber or flying torpedo.

Perfecting a gyroscope system that could automatically keep the aircraft stabilized became crucial. The auto-pilot system that Hewitt and Sperry eventually came up with featured a gyroscopic stabilizer, a directive gyroscope, a barometer for altitude control, radio-controlled wing and tail features, and a gearing device to measure the distance flown. Theoretically, these improvements would enable the aircraft to fly a pre-set course to a target where it would then either drop a bomb or simply crash, exploding its payload.

The Automatic Airplane designs were encouraging enough that the Navy supplied seven Curtiss N-9 seaplanes to be outfitted with the technology and poured an additional $200,000 into research and development. Ultimately, after several failed launches and wrecked prototypes, the project was scrapped but not before completing one successful flying bomb launch that proved the concept was at least plausible.

The Kettering Bug

While the Navy teamed up with Hewitt and Sperry, the U.S. Army commissioned another inventor, General Motor’s head of research Charles Kettering, to work on a separate “aerial torpedo” project. They also tapped Sperry to develop the torpedo’s control and guidance system and even brought in Orville Wright as an aviation consultant. That collaboration resulted in the Kettering Bug, an auto-piloted biplane programmed to carry a bomb directly to a pre-determined target. 

The Bug had a range of about 40 miles, flew at a top speed nearing 50 mph, and held a payload of 82 kilograms (180 pounds) of explosives. It was also equipped with a counter programmed to count the total number of engine revolutions necessary for the craft to reach its predetermined target (allowing for variables of wind speed and direction that were figured into the calculation when the counter was set). Once the requisite number of engine revolutions was reached, two things happened: a cam fell into place shutting down the engine and the wing bolts retracted, causing the wings to fall off. This sent the Bug into its final trajectory, where it detonated on impact. 

In 1918, the Kettering Bug completed a successful test flight, prompting the Army to place a large order for their production. However, the Kettering Bug suffered a similar fate to the Navy's Automatic Airplane and was never used in combat, partly due to concerns that the system might malfunction and detonate a payload prior to reaching its target in hostile territory. While both projects were scrapped for their initial purpose, in retrospect, the Automatic Airplane and Kettering Bug played significant roles in the development of modern-day cruise missiles.

From Target Practice to Spy in the Sky

The post-World War I period saw the British Royal Navy take the early lead in the development of radio-controlled unmanned aircraft. These British UAVs (target drones) were programmed to mimic the movements of enemy aircraft and were employed during anti-aircraft training for target practice. One drone often employed for this purpose—a radio-controlled version of the de Havilland Tiger Moth airplane known as the DH.82B Queen Bee—is thought to be the source from which the term “drone” hatched. 

The initial headstart the British enjoyed was relatively short-lived. In 1919, Reginald Denny, a serviceman late of the British Royal Flying Corps, emigrated to the United States, where he opened a model plane shop. Denny's enterprise went on to become the Radioplane Company, the first large-scale producer of drones. After having demonstrated a number of prototypes to the U.S. Army, in 1940, Denny got a huge break, procuring a contract for the manufacture of Radioplane OQ-2 drones. By the end of World War II, the company had supplied the Army and Navy with 15,000 drone craft.

A Hollywood Sidenote

In addition to drones, the Radioplane Company had the distinction of launching the career of one of Hollywood's most legendary starlets. In 1945, Denny’s friend (film star and future President of the United States) Ronald Reagan sent military photographer David Conover to capture snapshots of factory workers assembling Radioplanes for the Army’s weekly magazine. One of the employees he photographed was a young woman named Norma Jean Baker. Baker later quit her assembly job and went on to model for Conover at other photoshoots. Eventually, after changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, her career really took off. 

Combat Drones

The World War II era also marked the introduction of drones in combat operations. In fact, the conflict between the Allied and Axis powers revitalized the development of aerial torpedoes, which could now be made to be more accurate and destructive. One particularly devastating weapon was Nazi Germany’s V-1 rocket, a.k.a, the Buzz Bomb. This flying bomb, the brainchild of brilliant German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, was designed to hit urban targets and incur civilian casualties. It was guided by a gyroscopic autopilot system that helped carry a 2,000-pound warhead upward of 150 miles. As the first wartime cruise missile, the Buzz Bomb was responsible for killing 10,000 civilians and injuring around 28,000 more.

After World War II, the U.S. military started repurposing target drones for reconnaissance missions. The first unmanned aircraft to undergo such a conversion was the Ryan Firebee I, which in 1951 demonstrated the ability to stay aloft for two hours while reaching an altitude of 60,000 feet. Converting the Ryan Firebee into a reconnaissance platform led to the development of the Model 147 FireFly and Lightning Bug series, both of which were used extensively during the Vietnam War. During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military turned its focus toward stealthier spy aircraft, a notable example being the Mach 4 Lockheed D-21.

Attack of the Armed Drone

The notion of armed drones (as opposed to guided missiles) being used for battle purposes didn't really come into play until the 21st century. The most suitable candidate was the Predator RQ-1 manufactured by General Atomics. First tested and put into service in 1994 as a surveillance drone, the Predator RQ-1 was capable of traveling a distance of 400 nautical miles and could remain airborne for 14 hours straight. Its most significant advantage, however, was that it could be controlled from a distance of thousands of miles via satellite link.

On October 7, 2001, armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, a Predator drone launched the first-ever combat strike by a remotely piloted aircraft in Kandahar, Afghanistan in an effort to neutralize suspected Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. While the mission failed to take out its intended target, the event marked the dawn of a new era of militarized drones.

Since then, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as the Predator and General Atomics’ larger and more capable MQ-9 Reaper have completed thousands of missions, sometimes with unintentional consequences. While 2016 statistics released by President Obama revealed that 473 strikes had accounted for between 2,372 and 2,581 combatant deaths since 2009, according to a 2014 report in The Guardian, the civilian death toll resulting from drone strikes was, at the time, in the neighborhood of 6,000.


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Nguyen, Tuan C. "The History of Drone Warfare." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nguyen, Tuan C. (2023, April 5). The History of Drone Warfare. Retrieved from Nguyen, Tuan C. "The History of Drone Warfare." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).