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

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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