When Were the First Military Drones Developed and What Role Did They Serve?

Steve Mills

5 mins

01 Oct 2019

In 1917, a full sized monoplane responded to commands issued to it by a radio on the ground. The plane was unmanned; the world’s first military drone.

The First World War had been raging for two years with no end in sight when this first drone made its historic flight. It was just eight years after Louis Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel.

Its priceless parts are carefully preserved in Britain’s prestigious Imperial War Museum. These beautifully intricate assemblies of brass and copper, mounted on their varnished bases, lie in storage at the back of the Imperial War Museum. The surviving parts include its radio control elements, and the ground control device which transmitted its commands.

The story of this drone and the life of its maverick designers is irresistibly fascinating.

Designing the drone

Dr. Archibald Montgomery Low.

The design and operation of the drone were detailed in a comprehensive set of secret patents written by Dr. Archibald Montgomery Low in 1917, but not published until the 1920s.

Archie was an officer in the World War One Royal Flying Corps, who commanded the secret RFC Experimental Works in Feltham, London. He had been tasked with selecting a team to produce a control system for an unmanned aircraft capable of attacking German airships.

His very early TV system that he had demonstrated in London just before the war was the basis for this design. We know the details of this TV, its sensor array camera, signal transmission and digital receiver screen because they were recorded in an American Consular report.

In 1943 the residents of Grimsby and Cleethorpes became victims of a new type of morale-wrecking weapon: the butterfly bomb - history's first ever cluster explosive. Drones historian James Rogers tells the story behind the butterfly bomb: why it was such a deadly weapon of war and how the local residents of Grimsby and the surrounding area pulled together to deal with this new threat.Watch Now

Contrast to the Wright Flyer

Like the Wright flyer in 1903, the 1917 RFC drones were not an end product but an inspiration for continued development.

The Wright brothers did not fly in public until they went to France in 1908. Indeed, in those intervening years from 1903, they were accused in the USA of being either ‘fliers or liars’. They were not recognised as ‘first in flight’ by the Smithsonian Museum until 1942.

In fact, both of the brothers had passed away before their ‘Flyer’ was returned from London to the USA in 1948, transforming as it travelled, as the British ambassador said at the time, ‘from invention to icon’ .

The iconic ‘Wright Flyer’.

In contrast, the success of the RFC ‘Aerial Target’ was recognised immediately and its remote control system was adapted for use in the Royal Navy’s fast 40 ft boats.

By 1918 these unmanned explosive filled boats, remotely controlled from their ‘mother’ aircraft had been successfully tested. One of these Distance Control Boats has been found, lovingly restored and returned to the water. It is now exhibited at charity and commemorative events.

The idea of a drone

From the late 1800s people wrote about drones and devised systems to control airships which were the prime focus of aerial development, even after 1903 when the Wright brother flew their ‘Flyer’ at Kitty Hawk.

Some made model dirigibles and flew them in public demonstrations, controlling them with ‘Hertzian waves’ as radio was then called.

Flettner in Germany in 1906 and Hammond in the USA in 1914 issued patents for the radio control of aircraft but there is no evidence beyond rumour of any development projects along these lines being undertaken by them.

So before World War One the idea for building a drone had been explored but there was no significant market for airships or aircraft, let alone drones.

In the summer of 1940, Britain battled for survival against Hitler’s war machine; the result would define the course of the Second World War. It is known simply as The Battle of Britain.Watch Now

American unmanned aerial development during World War One was undertaken by ‘Boss’ Kettering (who developed his ‘Kettering Bug’) and the Sperry-Hewitt team. Their gyro stabilised aerial torpedoes flew in their launched direction for a pre-determined distance, like early cruise missiles.

This period was not only the dawn for the drone but also still daybreak for aircraft and radio development. In this deadly but exciting period there were a great many inventions. The progress up to 1940 was rapid.

The ‘Queen Bee’ and US drones

de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee on display at the 2018 Cotswold Airport Revival Festival.

As a result of this 1917 drone project, work on remote piloted vehicles continued. In 1935 the Queen Bee variant of de Havilland’s famous ‘Moth’ aircraft went into production.

The British air defence honed its skills on a fleet of more than 400 of these Aerial Targets. Some of these were still being used in the film industry well into the 1950s.

A US Admiral visiting Britain in early 1936 witnessed gunnery practise against a Queen Bee. On his return, the American programmes, it is said, were called drones because of the their connection to a queen bee in nature.

An accident in World War Two, in which Joe Kennedy was killed, was probably the greatest impact drones have had on the world to date.

Joe did not parachute out of his Project Aphrodite Doolittle Doodlebug drone Liberator bomber as planned because it exploded prematurely. JFK would probably not have become President of the USA if his older brother Joe had survived.

In this documentary, drones historian James Rogers explores the story behind Operation Anvil and the fateful final flight of a man who was meant to be the President of the United States.Watch Now

The Radioplane Company

In the early 1940’s the Radioplane Company in the Van Nuys, California produced the first mass produced small drone Aerial Targets for the US Army and Navy.

Norma Jeane Dougherty – Marilyn Monroe – worked at the factory and was ‘discovered’ during a propaganda film shoot of the company’s drones.

Radioplane had been started by Reginald Denny, a successful British actor who had achieved stardom in California and had returned to fly with the RFC in World War One. Back in Hollywood after the war he continued flying, joining the exclusive group of movie airmen.

The accepted story of Denny’s interest in drones stems from his interest in model aircraft.

Dan Snow's lifelong dream has been to fly a Spitfire. Now he gets the chance to go up in a two-seater version. Join him as he experiences the awe of seeing the coast from the air, learns how dog-fights would really have played out, and even attempts some daring and stomach-flipping aerobatics.Watch Now

By the 1950s all sorts of unmanned aerial projects started. Radioplane was acquired by Northrop who now make the Global Hawk, one of the most advanced military drones.

Twenty years after his death, in 1976 Dr. Archibald Montgomery Low was inducted into the New Mexico Museum of Space History’s ‘International Space Hall of Fame’ as “The Father of Radio Guidance Systems”.

Steve Mills had a career in engineering design and development until he retired, after which he has been involved in the work of a number of organisations. His engineering background in aviation on civil and military projects here and in North America has been put to use over the last 8 years as a volunteer at Brooklands Museum in Surrey.

His book, ‘The Dawn of the Drone‘ from Casemate Publishing is due to publish this November. 30% discount for readers of History Hit when you pre-order at www.casematepublishers.co.uk. Simply add the book to your basket and apply voucher code DOTDHH19 before proceeding to checkout. Special offer expires 31/12/2019.

Featured Image: An illustration of the world’s first military drone, first flown in 1917 – owned by the Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF). With thanks to Farnborough Air Sciences Trust.