The use of military 'drone' aircraft goes back to World War I

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The Kettering Bug drone in 1918. Photo: US Air Force Museum

The history of drones goes back much further than most people are aware. Not only were unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — aka drones — used against targets in World War II, but four competing programs were tested during the first World War.

The first two were in the United Kingdom and focused on gliders that would explode when they impacted the ground. Both designs were unsuccessful and neither were used in the war.

The first American program was led by three scientists working for the Navy to create an “aerial torpedo.” They were Elmer Sperry, inventor of auto-pilot; Dr. Peter C. Hewitt, a specialist in radio signals and vacuum tubes; and Carl Norden, who would go on to create the Norden bombsight for World War II bombers.

The men initially tried to create a radio-controlled aircraft that could fly to its targets, essentially attempting to create the suicide drones of today almost 100 years ago. When remote control failed, they settled on mechanically “programming” the drones to fly to their targets and detonate.

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The Hewitt-Sperry automatic airplane. Photo: Wikipedia

The resulting aerial torpedo could fly 50 miles with a 300-pound payload.

A successful test was conducted on November 21, 1917. Army Maj. Gen. George Squier was at the demonstration and ordered that the Army begin its own program.

The Army developed the “Kettering Bug” with the help of Charles Kettering and the famed Orville Wright. The “Bug” relied on an auto-pilot system to maintain steady flight, but had a mechanical system to shutoff its engine and jettison its wings after a set distance. The fuselage, filled with explosives, would then impact the target.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, both systems were plagued by problems with accuracy and neither was completed in time to aid the war effort. Research did continue though, leading to the drone missions of World War II.

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