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)

UAV Developments


A second-generation turbojet-powered Firebee, built by Ryan Aeronautical Company and developed from a target drone initially developed for the U.S. Air Force, led to the AQM-34, which ushered in modern unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the AQM-34 flew tens of thousands of missions over North Vietnam, parts of China, and even the Soviet Union, obviating the risk posed by manned reconnaissance flights.

In the 1970s, Israel began to modify existing UAVs and develop new designs. One of the most ingenious Israeli uses of UAVs came during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, when a “swarm” of Northrop Chukar unmanned craft was sent toward the Golan Heights. The Syrian military was tricked into thinking a massive air attack was under way against its potent surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, and launched dozens of SAMs against the incoming aircraft, substantially depleting their air defenses. In subsequent years, Israel took the global lead in certain types of UAVs, particularly in the 1980s with the development of lighter, smaller unmanned aircraft like the RQ-2 Pioneer (pictured). Along with its sibling, the IAI RQ-5 Hunter, the Pioneer flew extensively in the 1991 Gulf War.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (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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