Drone Origins: World War II and Vietnam-era Remotely Piloted Vehicles

DC-130 Carrying Ryan Firebees

A DC-130 carries two Ryan Firebee drones under its wing.

Drone Origins

“Moreover, the pilot of the future will not even need to leave home to wage a foreign war”

“In all, an odd prospect: Air combat conducted by men and women who commute to their stationary cockpits for eight-hour stints from their homes in Arlington and Alexandria.”

These quotes come from Paul Dickson’s 1976 book, “The Electronic Battlefield” (p.179). In many ways, the book was ahead of its time, signaling the coming “revolution in military affairs” that would surface in the 1990s—the transformation brought about by high-technology (especially robotics and computers), “full spectrum” intelligence, and communications. In one particularly illuminating chapter, Dickson turns to an analysis of what he calls “The Robot Air Force.” Given many of the origins of modern drone warfare stem from American involvement in Vietnam, it is worth sketching this brief genealogy.

During the “official” U.S. involvement in North and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1973, the region proved to be a “laboratory” for the testing and trialing of advanced American technology. The “electronic battlefield” was (at the time) a radical doctrine that aimed to map the entire battlespace with sensors and automated, machinic responses. The “McNamara Line” as it was known by its detractors, aimed to cover vast swathes of territory below the DMZ and into Laos with acoustic and seismic sensors that could detect human and truck movements. This data was then broadcast to overhead aircraft, which transmitted the radio signal on to a “nerve center” in Thailand, which in turn computed the data, generated a target, and then guided bombers to a designated strike area.

As part of this automating of the battlespace, the Air Force began populating the region with remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). The evolution of the U.S. drone can be understood as the passage of three overlapping phases: (1) the drone as a “target” (1910s-1950s), (2) the drone as a “sensor” (1960s-1990s) (3) the drone as a “weapon” (2000s-today).


The origins of the RPV, or drone, can be traced to the “target drones” used in the early twentieth century. These “dumb” drones were used to test and train combat pilots, missilemen, and anti-aircraft gunners.

KetteringThis technology first emerged in the First World War. The “grandfather” drone was the rail-launched Kettering Aerial Torpedo “Bug,” developed in 1917 by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company. The Bug was essentially an unmanned aerial torpedo – pilotless and guided by preset controls. As the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force writes, “After a predetermined length of time, a control closed an electrical circuit, which shut off the engine. Then, the wings were released, causing the Bug to plunge to earth — where its 180 pounds of explosive detonated on impact.” At the same time, in 1917, Elmer Sperry—pioneer of the gyroscope—began construction of the radio-controlled “Aerial Torpedo” or “Flying Bomb.” The Aerial Torpedo was able to fly 50 miles carrying a 300 pound bomb.

And so, both the Bug and the Aerial Torpedo became early forerunners to contemporary cruise missiles. But both were largely inaccurate and the drone race was put on hold.

The late 1930s saw a “rush of military interest in remotely controlled vehicles” (Dickson, p.181), out of which emerged the second generation “Bug,” as well as the “Bat” – a radio-controlled glide bomb used towards the end of the Second World War. In the mid-1940s the lethal “GB-1” Glide Bomb was developed to bypass German air defences. It was a workable glider fitted to a standard 1,000 or 2,000 pound bomb. Made with plywood wings, rudders, and controlled by radio, the GB-1s were dropped from B-17s and then guided by bombardiers to their target below. In 1943, one hundred and eight GB-1s were dropped on Cologne causing heavy damage (p.181). Later in the same war came the GB-4, or the “Robin”, becoming the first “television-guided weapon” (p.181). Although potentially revolutionary, the crude image would only function with sufficient detail in all but the best atmospheric conditions.

During this period, the English-based effort known as Operation Aphrodite begun. The aim was to strike German research laboratories that were concealed in bunkers. The plan was to take B-17 “Flying Fortress” and B-24 bombers, strip them down, and cram them full of high explosives. Manned crews would then pilot the plane for the first part of its orbit, but parachute out once the plane had crossed the English Channel into Europe. At this time, a manned “mothership” would take control, receiving live feed from an onboard television camera fitted in the cockpit.

B-17 Aphrodite

Aphrodite was a failure. It even claimed the life of Joseph Kennedy Kr, when his B-17 exploded over the English countryside before he and his co-pilot were able to parachute. But the military was not about to give up: the development of Aphrodite, together with the strides the Germans were making with the V1 and the more sophisticated V2 missile, accelerated the development of U.S. unmanned projects.


According to Dickson, in late 1946 a special “Pilotless Aircraft Branch” of the U.S. Air Force was established to develop three types of drones for use as training targets. Of the three, the airborne-launched Q-2 was the most important and ambitious, becoming the “father” of a new class of drones built by the Ryan Aeronautical Company, beginning in the early 1950s.

Ryan called these new models its “Firebees,” and went on to sell 4,000 of the jet-propelled drones (Dickson, p.183). The early Q-2/Firebee could stay in flight for up to two hours, was capable of flying up to 60,000 feet, and could reach speeds of 500 knots. As Dickson goes on, “Virtually every antiaircraft system the nation has developed has had to prove its worth by downing a batch of elusive Firebees” (p.183). In the mid-1950s, Sperry rigged an F-80 fighter so that it could be flown automatically to fetch radioactive atmospheric samples. Even so, the drone remained almost exclusively a “target” for training up to, and throughout the 1960s.

By 1970 top military brass were beginning to see the promise of the drone. The technology had become such that drones could be piloted from the ground (rather than an airborne mothership). One of the game-changing “moments” came in early 1971, in which unmanned machines “humiliated” manned systems in a simulated dogfight over the Pacific Test Range. This scenario pitted an F-4 Phantom against a Ryan Firebee, which was outfitted with a remote flight control system, making it a genuine RPV, rather than target drone or missile. Controlled by pilots on the ground, the Firebee managed to score several “hits” on the F-4. As Dickson notes, in 1972 a supersonic Firebee II even penetrated the missile defenses of the Navy destroyer Wainwright and scored a simulated direct hit.

In addition to simulations, the drone was proving its worth in “real” combat. For example, in 1962 drones were used for reconnaissance in Cuba; and in 1963, Ryan-147 “Lightening Bug” drones were used for spying in North Vietnam, Laos, and the People’s Republic of China. Some of these Firebees—which were launched by C-130 motherships—were downed over China in 1964 and 1965. Such was the extent of drone intelligence gathering during this time: “the US had given the lion’s share of its close-in surveillance work in Asia to the Ryan drones” (Dickson, p.188). The Air Force stated that approximately 3,000 unmanned missions were flown in Southeast Asia (p.188). Indeed, “About 85 percent of the photos taken to assess bomb damage during the period were brought home by these automated craft. Often unknown to both those who looked at them and those that published them, many of the aerial views of North Vietnam that appeared in the American press were taken by the drones” (p.188). Other Ryan Firebees were being adapted by the U.S. Navy in the area around North Vietnam.

Lightning Bug

A Lighning Bug over Vietnam

Finally, other Vietnam-era drones were being tested as “electronic listening devices” in the aforementioned “McNamara Line” (or more precisely, the Laos segment of the Line called “Igloo White”). This included the QU-22B Beech aircraft, a prototype unmanned system that would be deployed to receive and relay signals broadcast from the sensors dispersed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the unmanned system never saw the light of day. As the U.S. Air Force National Museum writes, “Although the QU-22B performed well as a signal relay, all operational flights in Southeast Asia carried a pilot onboard due to equipment reliability problems. In 1972, after the loss of several aircraft, the USAF cancelled the QU-22 program.”

Other programs that emerged throughout the 1970s included “Compass Code,” “mini RPVS,” as well as an Army program called “Remotely Piloted Aerial Observation/Designation System” that “Aimed at getting the RPV to find a target, and, like a pointer-dog, keep a bead on it with its laser nose until a laser-guided bomb or missile comes in from elsewhere to home in on the target” (Dickson, p.191).


The “electronic battlefield” of the Vietnam War is pivotal to understanding the development of contemporary drone warfare. It marked the turning point in which drones morphed from being “targets” to remote “sensor” platforms that could survey the landscape below.

It would take decades before the next phase: the drone as weapon. See “The Rise of the Predator Empire” for more.

This entry was posted in History of Drones, Vietnam and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Drone Origins: World War II and Vietnam-era Remotely Piloted Vehicles

  1. Pingback: FLIGHT CONTROL: Boeing’s ‘Uninterruptible’ Autopilot System, Drones & Remote Hijacking - Wide Awake America

  2. Pingback: FLIGHT CONTROL: Boeing’s ‘Uninterruptible’ Autopilot System, Drones & Remote Hijacking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s