The First Drones, Used in World War I

Illustration for article titled The First Drones, Used in World War I

Unmanned remote-controlled aircraft have been around longer than most people think. The Kettering "Bug," for instance, was developed during World War I. It was a bomb-carrying unpiloted biplane that flew on a pre-set course to its target.

Advertisement

Once its autopilot was set, the plane was on its own. Prototypes were built and successfully tested, but by the time the Bug made its first flights the war was over. Nevertheless, it was the precursor of the modern cruise missile.

Illustration for article titled The First Drones, Used in World War I
Advertisement

One count against unpiloted aircraft was that every time one was used, an airplane and some complex machinery was destroyed. This made the use of drones an expensive operation. To say nothing of the fact that once one was launched there was no way to alter its course.

Meanwhile, by the time of World War I, the development of the military rocket had pretty much reached as high a degree of perfection as it was to achieve until the 1930s. Rockets had the advantage of being a cheap way to deliver an explosive payload. That was a big plus.

There was a major drawback to the military use of rockets, however. From the get-go, the problem was their unpredictability once they were launched. There was absolutely no way to control a rocket and no guarantee it would go in the the direction you wanted it. For this reason, rockets were launched in salvos of dozens or even hundreds at a time. The theory was that if you launched enough rockets, some at least would wind up where you wanted them.

Illustration for article titled The First Drones, Used in World War I
Advertisement

If there were only some way to combine the two ideas: the cheapness and power of the rocket and the control of the airplane.

Dr. Henry W. Walden, a Massachusetts dentist, inventor and pioneer aviator (he built and flew the first monoplane in the US in 1909), figured there was a need to do something about this. It was 1915, the Great War was in progress and aircraft were already being equipped with rockets to be used against enemy planes. These were little better than ordinary skyrockets, though, and the chances of hitting another plane were as chancy as using rockets anywhere else. A pilot might be as likely to shoot his own plane down as the enemy's.

Advertisement

To solve this problem, Dr. Walden devised a rocket that could be steered by the pilot after it was launched. His missile was intended to be air-launched against ground targets. It would be controlled by radio signals from the mother aircraft. The pilot would visually observe the "aerial torpedo," activating its controls through radio signals. These signals operated small servo motors that moved steering vanes on the rocket's tail. (Radio-controlled vehicles had already been demonstrated by Nicola Tesla as early 1898.)

Illustration for article titled The First Drones, Used in World War I
Advertisement
Illustration for article titled The First Drones, Used in World War I
Illustration for article titled The First Drones, Used in World War I
Advertisement

Although Walden's patent was granted, it never became official: he never paid the fee, having received neither support nor interest from the US government. His idea wasn't vindicated for nearly a quarter of a century, when the first radio-guided rockets were developed by the Germans in World War II.

Walden eventually donated his model to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in 1957, where it remains today. It has never been put on display.

Advertisement

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

notindetroit
No, I don't thank you for the fish at all

I think they gave up on the Kettering Bug way too early. In WWII the USN returned to the idea of "assault drones" for use against warships. As these were conceptually identical to the Japanese Kamikaze, minus the pilot, they were full aircraft and required a whole carrier deck to launch. This made it a hard sell, but it also inspired the USN to develop rocket and jet-powered alternatives that were small enough to be launched from destroyers or other aircraft, and as they say the rest is history.

And then there's Project Aphrodite, which was an idea to take warn-out B-17s and B-24s, load them up with explosives (the frames were cut-up to take them beyond the normal max take-off limit, that's how serious they were), and send them off on radio control to destroy the Nazi's most hardened targets (sub pens, "wunderwaffen" development and launch sites, etc). The plan turned out a little iffy because by then they hadn't figured out how to make a plane as large and as complex as a B-24 take off on its own under radio control, so a skeleton crew still had to man the plane on take-off, line it up with its target and bail out while another aircraft (IIRC sometimes another B-17/24, sometimes something smaller like a Lockheed Lodestar) had to follow it all the way to the target and leave itself rather vulnerable. The problems kind of begin to show themselves at that point. Fun fact: JFK's daddy Joseph P. Kennedy died as a Project Aphrodite volunteer when his explosives-laden B-24 prematurely exploded before he could get out.