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)

First Reconnaissance Drone


Reginald Denny’s Radioplane Company, which was acquired in 1952 by Northrop Aircraft Incorporated, led the way in post-World War II UAV development. While most of the drones designed and produced during this period were used for target practice, 1955 saw the U.S. Army’s first reconnaissance drone, the Northrop Radioplane RP-71 Falconer (designated the SD-1 by the Army), based on a target vehicle design. Launched by two rockets and recovered by parachute, the Falconer carried a still film camera and could transmit crude video.

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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