Drones are not, as is often assumed, a 21st-century development. Far from it. Their history goes back more than 100 years, but the rate at which they are changing our everyday life continues to accelerate. So we thought it is worth looking back and seeing where the concept came from, how it developed, and where it stands today. Given the current rate of change, it’s obvious we’re only seeing the tip of what is going to turn out to be a very big technological and cultural iceberg.
Drones constitute a fundamental transformation in both military and civilian realms. In an unmanned air system (UAS), the miniaturization in technologies, accurate navigation, and the separation of the pilot from the vehicle form a combination that might be called a “first-order change.” It is a fundamental shift in direction. Just as jet engines wrought a similar change in commercial and military aviation, it is the effect of the Big Change that matters more than the types or uses of aircraft that follow.
The drone’s usefulness is expanding exponentially and runs the gamut from highly beneficial support of humanitarian operations to the frankly destructive mission of armed conflict. In short, a new day is upon us, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was a long time coming.
Early Days: Trial, Error, and Indifference
The first drones were developed along two different paths: an autonomous vehicle and one guided by a separate aircraft. In World War I, the Navy tested one kind of “aerial torpedo,” the Army another. Each involved a collection of ingenious and experienced inventors.
The Navy program incorporated Elmer Sperry’s three-axis gyroscopic flight-control system that was demonstrated in a successful flight down the Seine a month before the Great War began. Peter Cooper Hewitt’s $3,000 and a partnership with Sperry in late 1916 led to the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. Daring tests undertaken by Sperry’s son Lawrence led to a contract for six Curtiss Speed Scout airframes, which were the “first purpose-built unmanned aircraft.”
The Aerial Torpedo, fitted with the Sperry system, enjoyed its only success on March 6, 1918, when it guided itself over a 1,000-yard flight, then obeyed a preset command to dive on the target. Given that the target was the Long Island Sound, this may seem like a small success, but it has been noted by some that the Aerial Torpedo was the first unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) to be recovered and flown again.
Problems with the catapult and other systems crashed the Speed Scouts, but a converted N-9 trainer was successfully launched on October 17, 1918, and flew as planned for eight miles. At that point, drone aviation experienced its first uncommanded “fly away,” when the trainer’s flight continued until it disappeared over the horizon. The Navy’s attention turned to an occasional interest in target drones and the Sperry-Hewitt program ended.
To read the article from the Febbruary 2018 issue of Flight Journal, click here.