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)

My first experience with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles was in the spring of 2005, when I visited the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California. I was researching an article on close air support, and got a firsthand look at the RQ-2 Pioneer operated by Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron-1. Later that year, I had the opportunity to see a Predator in action when the base where I was staying, in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, came under nighttime mortar attack. It was impressive: Operators on the other side of the world—at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base—used the UAV’s cameras to zoom in on the attackers, then fire Hellfire missiles at their location. The mortar attacks abruptly ceased.

I became more familiar with UAVs during subsequent embeds in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on other research trips to Marine bases in the States. Although I never got more than a cursory look at how they were operated, the brief exposure sparked an interest to learn more. I had watched Marines using different types of UAVs, some of them small and relatively simple. And I wondered: Could someone without a formal background in aeronautical engineering—someone like me—actually build a UAV that could be used in the field?

I decided to give it a try. But before I could hit the drawing board, I’d have to research the world of UAVs, starting at the beginning. See the gallery above for a short history of unmanned flying vehicles, both military and civilian.

Photographer and writer Ed Darack plans to document—with photos and video—his attempt to design his own UAV. We’ll follow his progress at airspacemag.com as he advances from concept to working prototype.

Bomb-Dropping Balloons

(U.S. Patent Office)

The Union and Confederate armies both used balloons for spying on the enemy during the U.S. Civil War, with pilot-observers onboard. At least one person—Charles Perley of New York City—imagined that they could also be used to deliver weapons. His patent dated February 24, 1863 calls for a “divided basket” which would open like a clamshell when a timed fuse expired, thereby releasing a bomb. “A balloon can be made to pass over any object, and…any-sized bomb or missile of destruction can be carried up over the place to be destroyed,” he wrote.


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