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)

Operation Aphrodite

(U.S. Navy)

The United States attempted to weaponize unpiloted bombers during World War II, using specially modified B-17 Flying Fortresses and other airplanes loaded with explosives. In Operation Aphrodite, the U.S. Army Air Forces installed radio-controlled actuators to each aircraft’s flight controls, along with two television cameras (one looking out the nose of the craft, and one aimed at its instrument panel). Two pilots set out in the drone B-17s. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, they armed the explosives, passed radio control to another B-17 (the “mothership”), then bailed out using parachutes. Personnel on the mothership (which was fitted with television receivers and radio control equipment) would then guide the drone to German V-2 launch sites. That was the plan, anyway. None of the B-17s (or B-24s or PB4Y-1s also used as makeshift UAVs) ever made it to their intended targets, and a number of crew—including Joseph Kennedy Jr. (pictured)—died during these attempts.

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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, Highest Valor (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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