A Brief History of Unmanned Aircraft

From bomb-bearing balloons to the Global Hawk

An MQ-1 Predator over a mountain range in Nevada. (MSgt Scott Reed)

V-1 Buzz Bomb


Perhaps the best-known unmanned vehicle of World War II was the German Fieseler Fi 103, also called the V-1 “Buzz Bomb” (“V-1” stood for Vergeltungswaffe Eins, or “vengeance weapon one”). Meant to kill British civilians—per Adolf Hitler’s order for a weapon to be used against “non-military targets”—the V-1 was powered by a pulsejet engine that made a distinctive buzz. It carried a 2,000-pound warhead approximately 150 miles, and had a sophisticated guidance system consisting of gyroscopes, barometers, and an anemometer, which was used to calculate distance flown. Once over the target, the guidance system put the V-1 into a steep dive. The Germans launched roughly 20,000 V-1s at Allied targets, primarily in London and Antwerp, Belgium. The Buzz Bombs proved devastating, killing more than 10,000 civilians and injuring nearly 28,000.

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