Military Drones: From World War II to the Present

What started out as DIY projects for hobbyists became invaluable in warfare

13 October 2017

In the 1930s, silent film star Reginald Denny turned his passion for building radio-controlled model airplanes into a business venture for wealthy hobbyists. It wasn’t long until Reginald Denny Industries was selling its planes to the military instead.

The company received a contract in 1940 from the U.S. Army to build drones that the military used for target practice. Those OQ-2 Radioplanes could be reused if they weren’t hit, because they released parachutes for a soft landing. Nearly 15,000 of the drones were manufactured during World War II.

One of the company’s assemblers was 17-year-old Norma Jean Dougherty [above, right]. Ronald Reagan, an Army publicist at the time, took several photos of her—which led to modeling jobs and ultimately acting roles. Dougherty went on to become one of the world’s most iconic movie stars, Marilyn Monroe. And Reagan served as the 40th president of the United States.

The OQ-2 Radioplane, which set the stage for drones being used in military training exercises and warfare, is one of the unmanned aerial vehicles showcased in the Drones exhibition at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, in New York City, which is cosponsored by IEEE.


Although OQ-2 drones were the first to be used by the military, others were in development dating back to World War I. The U.S. Army in 1918 built the Kettering Bug, for example, to drop bombs. It was designed to fly a predetermined course to a target. The wings then would detach, leaving the craft’s body to release, detonating 82 kilograms of explosives on impact. To help ensure the bomb hit its target, a small onboard gyroscope would guide the craft to its destination. Although thousands were ordered into production, the war ended before any were used.

During World War II, the Japanese military designed completely autonomous balloon bombs. Flown across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, the explosives were intended to start fires in the forests of western North America. More than 9,000 armed balloons were launched, but only 361 are known to have reached land, and the damage they caused was minimal. The balloon bombs are considered to be the first intercontinental weapons.

The U.S. military used B-17 and B-24 bombers as pilotless flying bombs during the war. They packed them with explosives on one-way missions to Germany. Pilots were in the planes at takeoff but, once airborne, they parachuted out. Lt. Joseph Kennedy Jr., the older brother of John F. Kennedy, who would become the 35th U.S. president, piloted several such missions. On 12 August 1944 his converted B-24 Liberator exploded prematurely, killing him and the copilot.

Since World War II, drone technology has become more sophisticated. In the late 1950s Gyrodyne built the DASH—Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter [below]. It was designed to attack submerged submarines during the Cold War. The drone could carry two nuclear depth bombs, weighing nearly 200 kg each, and travel roughly 40 kilometers from its launch point on a U.S. submarine. The semiautonomous vehicle could travel to the target on its own but required human control for takeoff and landing.


Developed in 2002, the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle was the first drone to be approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for use beyond the operator’s line of sight. Equipped with infrared cameras and sensors, the drone helped commercial fishermen locate schools of fish. The ScanEagle [right] could fly for 24 hours at a speed of 148 km per hour. It later was adapted for military use and played a key role in search-and-rescue missions. The U.S. Navy Seals used the drone in 2009 to save Richard Phillips, the captain of an American cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates.

Used by the U.S. Marine Corps since 2002, the AeroVironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye fits into a soldier’s backpack. It weighs a little less than 3 kg. It can be disassembled and then rebuilt in less than five minutes and launched by hand or catapulted using an elastic cord. While in flight, the drone’s built-in camera transmits live images to the operator’s goggles. The Dragon Eye’s GPS-based waypoint system can help the soldier navigate the terrain.

The Kaman K-MAX helicopter drone was first used by the logging industry to lift oversized cut timber. It was the first drone helicopter to go into full-scale production. Beginning in 2011, the U.S. military used the helicopter to deliver cargo to Marines in Afghanistan. By the time the military stopped using the drone in 2014, it had delivered more than 2,250 tons of goods. The K-MAX has been used for nonmilitary applications as well, such as firefighting.

Still in development is the AirMule [below] by Urban Aeronautics of Yavne, Israel. The drone, which will be the size of a Humvee, is designed to transport food, ammunition, and fuel over combat zones to troops. It will be able to haul up to 500 kg of cargo and fly at an altitude of nearly 550 meters at a cruising speed of more than 170 kph.

The IEEE Life Members Fund of the IEEE Foundation provided a grant to the IEEE New York Section, which teamed up with the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum and the IEEE History Center on the exhibition, as well as a professional development course for teachers and a technical event with the section.

The drone exhibition is scheduled to run until 3 December and is free with museum admission. IEEE members receive a 10 percent discount on museum membership—part of an ongoing partnership.

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