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)

Kettering Bug


The Kettering Aerial Torpedo, later called the “Kettering Bug,” was a small biplane powered by a De Palma 4-cylinder engine and guided by gyroscopes, a barometer, and a mechanical “computer.” It flew in 1918 and had a range of up to 75 miles. The onboard computer counted engine revolutions (to gauge distance), then powered down the engine and jettisoned the torpedo’s wings at a pre-determined distance (calculated before launch based on prevailing wind speed and direction). At that point the fuselage would crash into its intended target with an explosive payload onboard. The Bug was never used in actual combat.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, Highest Valor (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the downing of Extortion 17, the deadliest helicopter crash in the history of U.S. special operations. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus