Drones: A Photo History

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1917: Sperry Aerial Torpedo

Toward the end of World War I, powered flight was in its infancy, the Wright brothers having flown their primitive biplane across the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a little over a decade earlier. But it was a time of stunning innovation. In 1917, Peter Cooper and Elmer A. Sperry invented the first automatic gyroscopic stabilizer, which straightens and levels out aircraft during flight, and unmanned flight was born. The new technology was used to convert a U.S. Navy Curtiss N-9 trainer aircraft into the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), controlled by radio. For 50 miles in test flights, the Sperry Aerial Torpedo flew with a 300-pound bomb, but it was never used in combat.

1917: Kettering Aerial Torpedo

The wooden Kettering Aerial Torpedo, nicknamed the "Kettering Bug," cost $400 in 1917 and could haul 300 pounds. General Motors' Charles F. Kettering, who designed the Bug, crafted it to launch from a trolley with rolling wheels and gave it detachable wings. Toward the end of World War I, the U.S. military placed orders for large shipments of Kettering Bugs, but the war ended before they were used.

1935: DH.82B Queen Bee

Until 1935, UAVs could not return to their original launching point, so they couldn't be reused. With the invention of the Queen Bee, drones could return to their senders, making them significantly more practical. Peaking at 17,000 feet and traveling a 100 mph maximum, Queen Bees were used in the British Royal Navy and Air Force until 1947.

1944: V-1 (Revenge Weapon-1)

Adolf Hitler wanted a flying bomb to use against nonmilitary targets, so in 1944 a German engineer, Fieseler Flugzeuhau, designed this 470 mph flying drone. A predecessor to today's cruise missiles, the V-1, which became known as the Vergeltungswaffe, or Revenge Weapon-1, was intended to be used to bomb the British Isles. The V-1 could carry substantially more weight than its predecessors and frequently towed warheads up to 2,000 pounds. Before releasing its bombs, which killed more than 900 civilians in Britain, the V-1 would travel a preprogrammed 150 miles after its launch off a catapult ramp.

1955: Ryan Firebee

Manufactured by Ryan Aeronautical Company, the first Firebee prototype, the XQ-2, was created in 1951 and first took flight four years later. Used primarily by the U.S. Air Force, the Firebee was one of the first jet-propelled drones. The unmanned craft were used for intelligence-gathering missions and radio-communications monitoring.

1963: Lockheed M-21 and D-21

The M-21, a variant of the A-12, the earliest in the Blackbird family, was a craft used to launch the Lockheed D-21, a higher-flying drone. The M-21 and D-21 were created as part of a project in operation from 1963 until 1968 and kept secret for more than 40 years. The M-21 had an improved design that included a second cockpit for a launch control operator, and together the two designs were used in four missions between 1969 and 1971 to spy on the Lop Nur nuclear test site. The 21s were canceled in 1966 after a collision during a launch between a D-21 drone and the M-21 mother ship.


1986: The Pioneer RQ-2A

First launched in December 1986, the Pioneer UAV system -- which gives the tactical commander images of a specific target or battleground image in real time -- performs a wide variety of "reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition" tasks, according to the U.S. Navy. It was first used in the late 1980s when military operations in Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya required a system of unmanned targeting at a low cost. The Pioneer, still in use today, is launched by a rocket-assisted takeoff, weighs 416 pounds, and travels at over 109 miles per hour. It can float, and can be recovered from sea landings.


1994: MQ Predator drone

General Atomics manufactured the MQ Predator drone in 1994. This updated version allows the Predator to transition from a strictly reconnaissance role to a critical ability to transport and launch weapons at targets. More than 125 Predators have been delivered to the U.S. Air Force and six are in use by the Italian Air Force. Predator UAVs have been operational in Bosnia since 1995 to aid NATO, U.N., and U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but are gradually being phased out.

2004: RQ-7B Shadow 200

The smallest of a family of drones, the RQ-7B Shadow is used today by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system can locate and identify targets up to 125 km away from the tactical operations center, which allows brigade commanders to see, interoperate, and act swiftly. Widely used in the Middle East, by May 2010, these drones had clocked some 500,000 hours in flight.


2005: Fire Scout Firing Rocket

The Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter known for its ability to autonomously take off and land from any aviation-capable warship and at unprepared landing zones, was created by the U.S. military in the early 2000s. Here, the Fire Scout test fires 2.75-inch unguided rockets during weapons testing at Arizona's Yuma Proving Grounds.

2009: RQ-170 Sentinel

Designed and manufactured by Skunk Works, a Lockheed Martin Corporation subsidiary, the RQ-170 Sentinel is used by the U.S. Air Force. Known as the "Beast of Kandahar" and frequently flying at an altitude of 50,000ft, the RQ-170 was first deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. In May 2011, the RQ-170 was deployed during the raid on the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where Osama bin Laden was located and killed. In December, another RQ-170 was captured by Iran and shown on Iranian television. This image displays the basic characteristics of the RQ-170: the winged design and 15,240 meter operating altitude.


2010: Global Hawk

The Global Hawk, a high-flying, long-endurance UAV used by the U.S. Air Force, has an integrated sensor that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. First developed in 2001, the Global Hawk has made significant benchmarks in aviation history. Known as the first UAV to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, the Global Hawk was authorized to fly in U.S. airspace for the first time in July 2006. Shown here, a full-scale model of the Global Hawk is displayed during a presentation in Tokyo.

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