Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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  • Aircraft--Drones-Unmanned
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  • Historical Summary
Wars & Conflicts
  • Operation Enduring Freedom
  • World War II 1939-1945
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • Vietnam Conflict 1962-1975
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Navy’s Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


DC-130A Hercules

A Fleet Composite Squadron 3 (VC-3) DC-130A Hercules Cargo Transport aircraft in flight over the target range at Point Mugu, California, August 1975. The aircraft was armed with three BQM-34 Firebee target drones. National Archives photograph, USN 1164756.


The use of flying objects in the United States, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), dates back to the Civil War when both Union and Confederate forces would launch balloons laden with explosives on ammunition depots in an attempt to explode them. UAVs have been dubbed names such as aerial torpedo, drone, radio controlled vehicle, autonomous controlled vehicle, and unmanned aircraft system. The early pioneers of unmanned flight main challenge was controlling them while they were in the air. World War I put intense pressure on inventors and scientists to come up with innovations in all aspects of flight such as power plants, fuselage structures, lifting wing configurations, and control surface arrangements.

In late 1916, the U.S. Navy hired the Sperry Gyroscope Company to develop an unmanned torpedo that could fly 1,000 yards with the capability of detonating its warhead on an enemy warship. Two years later, after a series of failures, on 6 March 1918, the company succeeded in launching an unmanned torpedo that hit the desired target 1,000 yards away. With that successful flight, the world’s first unmanned aircraft system, the Curtis N-9, was born.

In the late 1930s, the Navy returned to the development of UAVs. The Navy Research Lab developed the Curtis N2C-2 radio-controlled drone. The 2,500 lb. biplane was instrumental in testing the efficiency and accuracy of the Navy’s anti-aircraft defense system. World War II accelerated the development of aviation science and unmanned aircraft. Both the Allies and the Germans successfully utilized unmanned aircraft during the war. The most extensive unmanned program came during the Vietnam War, as advances in technology made unmanned vehicles more effective and practicable. Drones were flown extensively over North Vietnam to conduct various tasks such as reconnaissance and intelligence missions, leaflet drops, and surface-to-air missile radar detection.

In recent years, the Fire Scout and Scan Eagle platforms were used during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom from multiple ground and sea-based platforms. Unmanned systems are typically utilized for either dull (surveillance) or dangerous work where it is more feasible to use the technology than risk a human life. Today, unmanned systems continue to increase the time they can stay in the air as well as improve their warfighting capabilities.

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Selected Imagery


USS Sable

USS Sable (IX-81) TDN-1 drones parked on the flight deck, off Traverse City, Michigan, during flight tests on 10 August 1943. Note the inscriptions and cartoons on the aircraft noses, including Fatstuff and Coop's and Roy on the nearer TDN, and Dilbert on the more distant one. Official U.S. Navy photograph now in the collections of the National Archives, 80-G-387161.



MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle

The guided-missile frigate USS McInerney (FFG-8) embarked an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle at Mayport, Florida, 10 December 2008. This was the first time a Fire Scout has deployed with the U.S. Navy ship. Fire Scout assisted McInerney during a counter illicit trafficking deployment to Latin America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Holly Boynton) 081210-N-5677B-014



Triton unmanned aircraft system

The Northrop Grumman-built Triton unmanned aircraft system completed its first flight from the company's manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California, 22 May 2013. The one and a half hour flight successfully demonstrated control systems that allow Triton to operate autonomously. Triton is specially designed to fly surveillance missions up to 24 hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles, allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles. The system's advanced suite of sensors can detect and automatically classify different types of ships. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Bob Brown) 130522-N-ZZ999-001



MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle

Two MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the Sea Knights of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22 and an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle conducted hover checks prior to departing on an airborne use of force (AUF) training flight at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport's Unmanned Aircraft Systems (MARS UAS) Airfield at NASA Goddard's Wallops Flight Facility, 24 February 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Chris Perry/Released) 200224-N-CV785-0001



USS Sable

USS Sable (IX-81) off Traverse City, Michigan, for flight tests of TDN-1 drones, 10 August 1943. A crane barge is alongside, lifting a TDN-1 onto the ship's flight deck. Note that its wings have been detached and are stowed on deck at left. This view looks south, with Clinch Park in the immediate center background. The tall building in the left center distance is the Park Place Hotel. The clock tower in the right distance is that of the Traverse City State Bank. Official U.S. Navy photograph now in the collections of the National Archives, 80-G-387153.



USS Targeteer (YV-3)

Aerial view of drone aircraft catapult control ship USS Targeteer (YV-3) underway off the coast of California, 23 January 1963. Note drone aircraft on deck. National Archives photograph, USN 1066963.



Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle

A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launched from the Navy Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren test range in Virginia, 20 November 2008. Officials from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) and various other military commands used the test launch to confirm the Navy Expeditionary Overwatch (NEO) system's ability to deploy a UAV to successfully detect and engage fictional insurgents. NEO is the collection, integration and demonstration of manned and unmanned engagement systems, platforms, and integrated sensors to enable tactical decision making by agile expeditionary units such as NECC, Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps who conduct distributed operations in both ground and littoral environments. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams) 081120-N-7676W-098



MQ-25 deck handling demonstration

Boeing conducts MQ-25 deck handling demonstration at its facility in St. Louis, Missouri, 29 January 2018. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of The Boeing Co.) 180830-N-NO101-001


Published: Mon Aug 03 18:10:16 EDT 2020