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.