Drones are not a new idea – Intermission Story (28)

The Reaper Global Hawk RQ-4

Unmanned aerial vehicles, popularly known as drones, are most often associated with airstrikes in modern warfare, but their history goes much further back than that. While drones came into the spotlight during the early years of the 21st century the idea of a remotely-operated flying machine was developed much earlier. A forerunner of what we consider today to be an unmanned aerial vehicle was an Austrian balloon used during the siege of Venice in 1849.

During WWI many eccentric weapons were developed on all sides of the conflict. One was the pilotless aircraft that operated with the help of Archibald Low’s revolutionary radio controlled techniques.  The Ruston Proctor Aerial Target represented the cutting edge of drone technology in 1916. Low, nicknamed “the father of radio guidance systems,” was happy for the project to be developed further and used in kamikaze-style ramming strikes against Zeppelins.

The Kettering Bug

Another project led the way for further research of UAVs.  The Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, also known as the “Flying Bomb,” or the “Aerial Torpedo,”  went from Britain to the USA in 1917, resulting in an upgraded American version named the Kettering Bug.  Although it was considered to be a large success, the war ended before it could be utilized.

Cruise missiles, which perform under similar principles as unmanned aerial vehicles, are single use weapons. Drones are carriers and users of armament, or other equipment, depending on their given role.

After WWI there was a lot of interest in producing and improving remote-controlled flying weapons. The US Army took the initiative in further exploring such concepts.

RAE Larynx on destroyer HMS Stronghold, July 1927

After the war, three Standard E-1 biplanes were converted into UAVs. While the Americans were laying the groundwork for drones, the British Royal Navy conducted tests of aerial torpedo designs such as the RAE Larynx. In 1927 and 1929 the Larynx was launched from warships under autopilot.

DH-82 Queen Bee

Pilotless aircraft were also made as aerial targets. Among the projects used for target practice was the “DH.82B Queen Bee”. It derived from the De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane trainer which was adapted to new radio technology.  She was the first returnable and reusable.

The name “Queen Bee” is considered to have introduced the term “drone” into general use. During the 1930s the term specifically referred to radio-controlled aerial targets. Once World War II broke out, it started to represent any remotely-controlled pilotless aerial vehicle.

Reginald Denny Hobby Shop

Reginald Denny went from England to the United States in 1919, intending to become an actor in Hollywood, but he also pursued another dream. Together with his partners, he opened Reginald Denny Industries and a shop that specialized in model planes, called the Reginald Denny Hobby Shops.

OQ-2A Radioplane

The business evolved into the Radioplane Company, and Denny offered his target drones to the military. He believed the drones would be very useful, especially for training anti-aircraft crews. Denny and his company produced 15,000 target drones for the US army just before and during WWII. His most famous model was called Radioplane OQ-2.

Curtis N2C-2 target drone 1938/39

Around the same time, during the late 1930s, the US Navy developed the Curtiss N2C-2. This unmanned aerial vehicle was remotely controlled from another aircraft, which made the design revolutionary. The US Army Air Force (USAAF) also adopted this concept and started improving it. The primary use of the technology was still as target practice for AA gunmen. However, as America was preparing for war, the UAV experiments were being redirected for combat use.

In 1940 the TDN-1 assault drone was capable of carrying a 1,000-pound bomb and was deemed fit for service. It was easy to produce and passed on tests. However, the drone was too hard to control, and as complications were expected once it entered combat conditions it never saw action.

During Operation Aphrodite in 1944, some modified B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were used as enormous aerial torpedoes, but they also failed to see wider service. They proved to be ineffective. One of the reasons why the concept was abandoned was the death of Joseph Kennedy Jr, brother of the future president, who died alongside his crewmember during one of the raids as part of Operation Aphrodite.

Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy


The development of pulsejet engines enabled the Germans to produce the fearsome V-1 Flying Bomb which at the time represented the pinnacle of guided missile systems. The Americans also introduced the pulsejet engine during the war, but once again only to produce target drones like the Katydid TD2D/KDD/KDH. The real boom in the UAV industry was yet to come, during the troublesome years of the Cold War.

Sources of information:Fly Historic Wings; Reuters; Nova; War History online; and Ctie.monash.edu.au “The Pioneers”

Click on images to enlarge.


Military Humor – 



Farewell Salutes – 

Juan Alvardo – Pawnee, TX; US Army, WWII

Harold Biebel – Belleville, IL; US Navy, WWII, USS Frybarger

Arthur Fain – Chicago, IL; US Army Air Corps, WWII

Trinidad Gameroz – Lincoln, NM; US Navy, WWII, ETO

John McNulty – Vancouver, CAN; RC Air Force, helicopter pilot

Donald Percy – Adams, NY; US Navy, radioman

George Purves – W. AUS; RAF; WWII, / RA Air Force, Mid-East & Vietnam

Norman Silveira – Alvarado, CA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 2/187th/11th Airborne Divison

William Walker – Hawkes Bay, NZ; RNZ Navy # DJX569685, WWII, ETO


About GP

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GP is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on November 13, 2017, in WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 123 Comments.

  1. hahaa…thats funny it actually started long ago

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Though I was aware of unmanned aircraft I somehow missed the connection between them and drones. Yet another well-done post< Your blog is the only one that I am reading just now but will pick up writing and reading again soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very beautifully written, this is history that is not boring!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I knew none of this information about developments that led to today’s drones. Thanks for posting this.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. We can learn from the past

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It always makes me shake my head in amazement to realize how much history he are unaware of leaving us to think that we (collectively) are the instigators of great design. HA!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Well, I’ll be darned. I do believe you’ve just solved a mystery for me.

    A couple of years ago (or three, or one) I was working at a Yacht Club on Clear Lake about 5 in the evening. Lakewood is south and a little east of Ellington Field, and there always are Army helos, Navy trainers, F18s and such flying in and out.

    That evening, I looked up and saw something flying low over the lake, toward Ellington. I pointed it out to someone, and said, “That’s a drone.” I’d never seen a drone, but I was sure that’s what it was. Now, seeing that photo of the Reaper Global Hawk RQ-4 at the top of this page, I know I saw a military drone.

    When I did more reading, I found that the Reaper Global Hawk has been used as the basis for development of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton. That drone is another unmanned aerial vehicle, developed as a surveillance aircraft for the Navy. I found this on the Wiki page:

    “Developed under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, the system is intended to provide real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions (ISR) over vast ocean and coastal regions, continuous maritime surveillance, conduct search and rescue missions, and to complement the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.”

    I can’t say for sure whether what I saw was a Reaper Global Hawk or an MQ-4C Triton, but it’s a fact that test flights of the Triton were taking place about the time I saw “the thing.” At least one Triton test flight included the Texas/Mexico border and the Gulf states. In any event, I’m sure I saw one of the two. It’s neat to find out about them at last!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Military or not, they’ll be lurking about more and more I suspect, Linda. I think it’s terrific you actually got to see one and you were probably the only one around who realized what it was. That’s a great story and I thank you very much for dropping in to to share it with us!!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great piece on the story behind the evolution of the Drone gp, guess the world will soon be seeing Drones being not only a part of Warfare, but an intrinsic part of mass control over populations, technology is moving fast, particularly when backed by World Governments whose goal is Power over the People.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. A very Interesting topic… Thanks again for teaching me things I didn’t already know!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Natuurlijk wist ik die dingen van onbemande vliegtuiigen,bomme, e, oorlog voeren op afstand maar had eigenlijk nooit de klik gemaak tnaar drones.Knap artikel

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you one again, GP! The information is of great interest.
    Have a nice week. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Will man ever stop trying to find weapons to kill other men? Somehow I don’t think so, too much money to lose by those who are not in harms way

    Liked by 2 people

    • I felt I had to put in this post because I hear people talk about military drones as though it’s the current administration’s plot to invade privacy. I have to laugh and say – “you gave up your right to privacy when you joined Facebook!! 🙂 When we were kids, we wrote journals and diaries and would be horrified if anyone read it – NOW? – we write every movement of our day online and we’re furious if NO ONE reads it!!!!

      Liked by 3 people

  13. I mean on history of drones 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Interesting read 🙂
    I wrote a paper on this last term for one of classes. Here is another good reference on the history of Drones, if you haven’t already seen it:

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Well, that’s interesting! Learned all kinds of new things today about drones. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I am not sure if this is the correct reply-to address, but I received sad news this AM. CAPT Tom Hudner passed on yesterday DDG-116 was named after him last April. He was a tireless veterans advocate, and received the CMOH for his attempts to save his flight leader ENS Jesse Brown, who crash landed near the Chosin Reservoir during action in DEC 50. ENS Brown was the first African-American naval aviator.


    If you would like more info, please let me know. There is a lot out there on the net, but I will be happy to help if needed.

    Thank you for your work, it really makes a difference,

    Rob Benson

    *Dr. Rob BensonProfessor of Geology and Earth Sciences, Director, Edward M. Ryan Geology Museum, Faculty TrusteeDepartment of Biology and Earth SciencesAdams State University, 208 Edgemont Blvd., Alamosa, CO 81101719-587-7921, rgbenson@adams.edu *

    On Mon, Nov 13, 2017 at 4:37 AM, Pacific Paratrooper wrote:

    > GP Cox posted: ” Unmanned aerial vehicles, popularly known as drones, are > most often associated with airstrikes in modern warfare, but their history > goes much further back than that. While drones came into the spotlight > during the early years of the 21st century the i” >

    Liked by 2 people

    • I thank you very much for informing me of this sad event. One of the Chosin Few!! I will be honored to include Captain Hudner in the Farewell Salutes on Thursday. The world has lost a true hero.


  17. I had no idea drones went back so far! Very interesting. Love the jokes — especially the divorce one!

    Liked by 2 people

  18. The story of Joe Kennedy is still shrouded in much secrecy. There are many theories as to the cause of his death, the most plausible being a short in the electrics linked tot the torpex causing a premature detonation. I looked into it myself previously, your readers may like to read what I found. There’s also some videos about the incident. http://wp.me/p4xjD9-gpa and photos from my own trip to Fersfield airfield where Kennedy flew from. http://wp.me/p4xjD9-goW.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. There is a frightening aspect to war becoming automated, G. The more impersonal it becomes, the easier it is. At least, it seems that way to me. –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Very interesting, GP. It was a long road to where we are today.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. They’re a wonderful way to save the lives of sailors and soldiers, but they can do a lot of harm when used by stupid civilians!

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Very interesting. I didn’t know the specifics of how Joseph Kennedy died in the war. History might have been quite different if he had survived and run for President instead of his younger brother. Everything in history is connected, isn’t it?

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Shared this with my husband who builds drones.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. very revealing!
    still, I’d rather have
    a smaller, lighter
    newer one
    for myself 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Sharing with grandson’s is a treat!

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Now that you’ve pointed it out, it makes perfect sense. That was an interesting article.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Thanks for this enlightening and interesting article,

    Liked by 2 people

  28. Interesting tidbit of history, that Joe Kennedy was killed by an exploding drone. I assume that he and that other pilot were perhaps flying too close to it at the time of the explosion.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Great article. I love reading stuff like this. I also enjoyed the second cartoon 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Very interesting account of the historical development of the drone! Until I read your post I thought the drone had only recently been invented.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. How fascinating! I suppose everything in modern warfare is based on what was invented way back.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Very interesting post! And it sure looks like we’re going to be hearing more and more about drones, so good to learn their history. I never knew about the WWI efforts – -that was an incredibly costly war, but it also seems to have been an incredible incubator for new ideas and technology. Also good to learn of Archibald Low – based on a few minutes reading, sounds like a flawed but fascinating inventor.

    Liked by 2 people

  33. Great background story to the modern drones, GP! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  34. Wow! I knew about the drones during The War, but Reginald Denny’s contribution was new to me. Thank you for writing about this!

    Liked by 2 people

  35. Thank you for this extremely interesting post (on several ‘fronts’): first and foremost, of course, the history of drones. Also, your mention of Reginald Denny brought back memories of seeing this fine character actor in many old movies — usually, as I recall, as a butler. Last but laughs, the two cartoons — especially the “Have you tried divorce” one. 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for coming by. I’m very glad you enjoyed this post as much as you did. I know what you mean about Reginald Denny – check out Wikipedia – his credits are huge! The humor, of course, I always get a kick out of myself – the military has a great sense of wit.

      Liked by 1 person

  36. As usual, you have given us a well-researched interesting article. I had seen bits and pieces before but have never seen the subject covered as well.

    Liked by 4 people

  37. This article reminds me of Nikola Tesla’s remote controlled model boat.

    Liked by 5 people

  38. Great background to what has become a backbone of modern warfare. I had vaguely heard of the target models, but not much else. Thanks, GP.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 5 people

  39. Fascinating – I knew about 1% of that. I guess the most famous ‘pilotless aircraft’ was the German V1 ‘flying-bomb’ or ‘doodlebug’, which was successfully used, with devastating effect, from 1944 – swiftly followed by the V2 rocket. Not exactly drones, but…

    Liked by 5 people

  40. Thank you for sharing this post.


  41. Sharing this history is much appreciated.


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