April 1956 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
The term 'drone' these days for most invokes the image of a
little plastic spider-looking thing with propellers mounted
at the ends of the arms - usually with a toothless bumpkin at
the controls. Those same people often think drones are relatively
new devices. People with a just a little more information automatically
classify all radio control (R/C)
models, be they traditional fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters,
as drones. Pilots of the aforementioned models are even likely,
per observers, to have all their teeth and bathe regularly.
I happen to be one of the latter type R/C modelers and while
I no longer possess all 32 teeth I had at birth, I do bathe
regularly. Drones have been around since World War I where
they were used for target practice by ground-based marksmen.
Once radio remote control became practical, adopting it for
use in pilotless aerial platforms was a natural evolution. I
have written in the past about what a large contribution hobbyists
have made to 'drone' technology both through their technical
prowess and flying ability. Hobby magazines like Flying
American Aircraft Modeler, R/C Modeler,
and others, have for decades reported on advancements in drone
Drones - Put R/C into War Games
By E. D. Morgan
High over the atomic test site in Nevada, three F-80 "Shooting
Star" jet fighters orbited along precise flight paths. Their
brilliant red fuselages glistened in the sunshine which soon
would be dimmed by a man-made fireball from below. Would the
planes withstand the blast about to be unleashed? Their mission:
to find out.
And find but they did. All three survived, although damage
to two of them was severe. One crash-landed on a dry lake, preserving
its precious instruments and records. One landed safely at a
nearby Air Force base. The third was unfortunately lost in the
mountains to the east. The Atomic Energy Commission announced:
mission successfully executed.
But what of the pilot lost in the mountains? As you have
undoubtedly guessed, there was no pilot. The operation was but
a routine demonstration of remote-controlled flight,
Nor is this example an isolated one. Automatic gunfire control
systems, as well as new type guns and shells, are regularly
checked by the Navy using pilotless planes which dive and maneuver
about the ships.
Army aerial target is shown being prepared
for flight. After use, damaged target models are rebuilt whenever
possible so they can be flown again.
Sleek gas- and jet-driven target models sharpen the shooting
eyes of Army anti-aircraft batteries. And the little craft have
all the tricks that are known to their bigger, piloted counterparts.
Other nuclear missions greatly aid atomic energy research.
Radioactive clouds have been probed with special instruments,
and laboratory animals exposed to determine the radio-biological
A few years ago, unmanned B-17's crash-landed in the water
to secure valuable information about the effects upon structures
and to check the ditching procedures in use. They landed precisely
at a predetermined spot already surrounded with elaborate equipment
waiting to record the results ... without the risk of a single
Radical types of aircraft designs are tested, new techniques
evaluated, and new procedures checked for flaws without endangering
our flying personnel. To those versed in flying radio-controlled
models, this will come as no surprise.
The "drones," as the pilotless planes are called, have advanced
to a state of real precision.
Most of this progress has been made since World War II, although
during that struggle four Flying Fortresses were loaded with
explosives and directed toward enemy lines. Pilots flew the
planes from allied bases and bailed out once they were airborne.
Of these, only one reached its German target. Today's techniques
are a far cry from that meager start.
Pilotless "Shooting Star" about to be flown
off runway by controller. Director aircraft takes over during
Ground radar control station commands exact
flight path of QF-80 jets through an atomic cloud or other precision
Converted jet fighters and four-engined bombers fly entire
missions from take-off to landing under control of operators
on the ground or in nearby planes. Many models have been designed
specifically for remote control operation. They range from small
aerial gunnery targets (called R-CAT's by the Army for Radio-Controlled
Aerial Targets) to powerful jet engine models like the Ryan
"Firebee." The Navy recently announced that it even had a drone
helicopter undergoing flight tests, while the Army has unveiled
a photographic drone for reconnaissance missions.
Launching of small drone airplanes may be
done in a variety of ways. A catapult is being used to provide
Navy target drone with JATO assist.
The electronic systems required to control these planes in
flight cover a like span of complexity. "Beeper" pilots, so-called
because of the characteristics of the control signals, have
an array of control systems ranging from a simple joystick control
to elaborate truck-mounted consoles. Some systems require the
operator to "fly" the plane, i.e., use his judgment on how long
or short a signal to transmit to cause the desired reaction.
Others use proportional control and the operator merely turns
a dial to the compass heading or altitude he wishes the drone
Recovering small target drones is usually
accomplished by parachute. Damage to essential parts by gunfire
automatically releases the chute.
Take-off and recovery techniques vary as much as the models
themselves. The converted military planes are flown down the
runway and into the air exactly as their piloted brothers are.
Small drones are launched in a variety of ways. Sometimes a
rotary launcher is used and the drone released after it is airborne
and under control of the operator. In other cases a special
catapult provides JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) for a running
start. Landings range from conventional wheel landings on long
runways to parachute recoveries of the small target drones.
On many of the target missions, of course, accurate gunfire
makes recovery unnecessary.
Average life of a drone is difficult to determine. The Navy's
base at Chincoteague, Va., supplies drones for operations off
the Virginia Capes. Using F6F's almost entirely, about 85% of
their losses are from fleet gunnery, and the average life is
about 2.75 missions. Other bases have reported drones which
survived over 20 gunnery flights, although this is exceptional.
Radar corner reflectors in wing-tip appendages
of drone insure .that radar-controlled guns receive echo from
"Armchair pilots" who fly these drones have to undergo extensive
training. Flying full-sized converted fighters and bombers requires
a skill possessed by only the best of "live" pilots chosen for
Safety pilots usually go along to check out the equipment
initially, and on training flights, but the real McCoy is flown
NOLO (NO Live Operator). Control is usually transferred to a
director or chase plane after take-off which then controls the
drone throughout the rest of its mission, returning control
to the ground operator for the landing operation.
Visual observation of the drone is not always required, however.
Remote-controlled flights have ranged as far as 100 miles from
the operator. In such cases, the drone's position is reported
by radar tracking.
New jobs are continually being found for the drones, and
these jobs are being done more effectively, more efficiently,
and at less human risk than with piloted airplanes. A more subtle
but far-reaching benefit is the backlog of skills, equipment
and manpower which will be available for the guided missiles
of the future.
Posted September 15, 2015