WWII drones: How the first UAVs took to the skies

Now synonymous with distant pilots soaring high above a battlefield they will never see first hand, the roots of today’s sleek and sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) actually stretch back almost a century. With World War I (1914-1918) providing a crucible for technological innovation, experiments began in unmanned flight.

The result was an American ‘aerial torpedo’ called the Kettering Bug. A forerunner to the modern guided missile, it could carry an explosive warhead at up to 80 kilometres (50 miles) per hour. A timer could be set, shutting off the engine and dropping the wings so that it could plummet like a bomb, but military planners were wary of flying these inaccurate explosives over their own lines.

In the run up to World War II (1939-1945), Britain’s Royal Navy experimented with fitting wooden biplanes with radio control so that they could serve as target practice – building up vital skills for the coming conflict, which would see air superiority play a pivotal role.

WWII drones: How the first UAVs took to the skies
The Kettering Bug was one of many early UAV designs


In 1933, a modified floatplane called Fairey Queen was tested as the first fliightless drone aircraft. It crashed on two out of three trials, but in 1934, Queen Bee, a modified Tiger Moth aircraft, followed with greater success. Training gunners on these rudimentary models wasn’t a very realistic simulation, but a solution was soon to come from the United States in the form of British-born actor Reginald Denny, and his Radioplane Company. After years of trying desperately to interest the US Navy in the Radioplane-1, Denny succeeded in 1939 and over the course of the war some 15,374 models of Radioplane were built.

Fast, agile and durable, Radioplanes were fitted with responsive radio control and were better able to mimic the speed and agility of the enemy’s fighters.

Drones that fight

While ‘aerial torpedoes’ represented the destructive capability of drone technology – the end result being Nazi Germany’s V-1 and V-2 rockets – the seeds of the concepts for modern UAVs were also sewn behind the red banners of the Third Reich.

Dr Fritz Gosslau proposed Fernfeuer in 1939 – a vision for a remotely-piloted plane, which could drop its payload and then return to base. Plans for Fernfeuer were halted in 1941, but paved the way for development of the V-1 flying bomb. In March 1944, the US Navy deployed the TDN-1 assault drone in the fight against Japan. On 19 October 1944 it successfully dropped bombs over targets in the Pacific. Unlike the planned Fernfeuer and current UAVs though, TDN-1 had no way of flying home.

WWII drones: How the first UAVs took to the skies
The V1 bomber was designed by the Nazis to retaliate to Allied bombing


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