From balloons to the Predator, a controversial technology emerges
Drones—the latest “smart weapon” from the military—are in the news a lot. They are intended to hit hard-to-reach targets that couldn’t be attacked by an aircraft with a pilot. Sometimes they work with devastating effect, and sometimes they don’t. Drones aren’t the first unmanned “smart weapon,” however. They come from a long line of successes, and failures. Here’s a list which shows the evolution of the drone, or, as the military calls them “unmanned aerial vehicles.”
1849. Austria was at war with Venice, and devised a series of five balloons to be floated over the enemy lines. Venice, being on the water, had an innate defense against an invasion, so the Austrians looked for other ways to inflict damage. The balloons were filled with explosives, and timed to detonate over the Venetians. Some of them exploded as planned, but unpredictable wind shifts sent some others back over the Austrians.
1862. During the American Civil War, balloons were used exclusively for reconnaissance (see a balloon in action at the Battle of Seven Pines, below). Patents were issued for unmanned bombers—one with wings and a propeller, and another for a hot-air balloon packing a payload much like the Austrians. But neither the Confederacy nor the Union took aerial bombing very seriously.
1890s. The famed inventor Nikola Tesla created what is believed to be the first electronic remote control of an object. At an 1898 exhibition, Tesla controlled the actions of a small boat in a pool. He also imagined the first robotic airship. He thought that his idea of a remote controlled boat, complete with bombs, would be so horrific an idea that war would no longer be a concept. He, regrettably, was wrong.
1930s. The first successful radio controlled aircraft are created. In 1934, the actor Reginald Denny created a model plane and tried to sell it to the U.S. Army. It crashed, but later versions fared better. The radio controlled plane was finally in production—one employee in the plant was a woman later known as Marilyn Monroe.
1940s. The U.S. Army Air Corps began experiments with radio controlled and laser-guided aircraft. One such test involved using large B-17 and B-24 bombers as remotely controlled, enormous torpedoes. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was killed during testing of these aircraft. Other, more drone-like unmanned aircraft were also used, but to little effect.
1960. The U.S. military didn’t have an extensive arsenal of spy aircraft (manned or unmanned), and the shooting down of pilot Francis Gary Powers by the USSR underscored the need to more remote aircraft. A craft called the Ryan Firebee, which is a mix of a missile and a small aircraft, was adapted for spying and other applications in the Vietnam War. During this war, the military began large-scale planning for the use of drones and other remote aircraft.
Today. Now, the variety of drones is almost staggering. Miniature drones can be carried by an individual soldier, and launched like an anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, other drones are designed for extremely long flights. And the drones we’re probably more familiar with, like the Predator, carry even larger payloads and were in use in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. military. While some have accurately hit intended targets, others may have inadvertently killed civilians. In addition, the domestic use of these drones is generating an increasing amount of controversy.
Sources: Monash University, Wikipedia
Photos: Wikimedia Commons