Military Drones Were Made In London... 100 Years Ago

By Londonist Last edited 15 months ago
Military Drones Were Made In London... 100 Years Ago
Archibald Low. Image public domain

Priceless parts of the world's first military drone are carefully preserved by the Imperial War Museum, but not on public view. Steve Mills, author of The Dawn of the Drone, looks at the forgotten genius behind its development.

It all began in the warm spring of 1914 when Selfridge’s store and other venues in London witnessed demonstrations of a revolutionary television system. Not that of John Logie Baird, which was still a decade away, but an invention by Dr Archibald Montgomery Low — a great British inventor whose life is all but forgotten.

Explosive bullets

Low's TV never took off, but his career did. After press reports of his invention, Dr Low was recruited into the Royal Flying Corps to develop the control system for uncrewed aircraft, covertly named ‘Aerial Targets’. In these desperate times it was hoped that they would be capable of attacking the German airships that, from 1915, flew regular bombing flights over London.

Archie Low was also set to work assisting with the development of an explosive bullet, another intended solution to the Zeppelin menace. In the autumn of 1916 these bullets were used to shoot down one of these marauding airships, finally ending their reign of total aerial supremacy.

1917: The first drone flight

The success of the bullets removed the need for an uncrewed aircraft to attack airships. However, by then Low’s team had made such encouraging progress with their 'drone' remote control system that the military continued to support this innovative project.

Archibald Low's first drone
The world's first military drone, developed by Archibald Low and team in 1917.

The first trial was held on Wednesday 21 March 1917 at the RFC Central Flying School base at Upavon on Salisbury Plain. The 'pilot' was none other than Henry Segrave, who would go on to hold both the land-speed and water-speed world records, not to mention a knighthood.

The first unmanned aircraft did not launch correctly, but the second machine soared into the air with Segrave shouting 'Up!' and then yelling 'By God, it’s working'.'‘Up! Up!'. However, overdoing it, the monoplane looped, the engine spluttered and the top brass scattered as this novel prototype weapon tore into the ground nearby.

Even so, the system had been successfully demonstrated — a full-sized monoplane aircraft had responded to commands from the ground. Remember, this was just 14 years after the Wright Brothers' flight, and only eight years after Louis Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel. The first World War had been raging for over two years with no end in sight when this first radio-controlled drone made its historic flight.

The first drone is preserved in London

The airframe and engine of the first drone were considered commonplace, and not preserved. The guidance technology, however, was top secret. It returned with Low's team to Feltham. There it remained with Archie until the 1950s, when Lord Brabazon, on Low's behalf, presented it to the Imperial War Museum in safe keeping for the nation and the wider world.

The priceless parts remain at the museum to this day, though sadly stored away from public display. These include the radio control elements (designed in Feltham) from the aircraft, servo gear, and the ground equipment that transmitted the operator's commands.

Selective transmitter from which the signals controlling the aerial projectile were sent. (c) IWM.

After discovering that these precious artefacts were in the IWM store, I knew that I couldn't just let these
beautiful assemblies of brass and copper mounted on their varnished bases lie back in their wooden crates without putting pen to paper. After all, these iconic items were created at daybreak in the history of both aircraft and radio. The story of this unpiloted vehicle and the life and times of its maverick designers proved irresistible and fascinating. My book, The Dawn of the Drone, tells this fascinating tale.

Drones on the water

Like the Wright flyer in 1903, the 1917 RFC drones were not an end product but an inspiration for continued development.

The surviving 1918 drone boat CMB 9/DCB 1. Courtesy Robert Morley and Liner Lookout Cafe.

The success of the RFC 'Aerial Target' was recognised immediately and its remote control system was adapted for use in the Royal Navy’s fast 40 foot boats. By 1918 these uncrewed explosive-filled boats, remotely controlled from their 'mother' aircraft had been successfully tested. One of these 'Distance Control Boats' has been found, lovingly restored and returned to the water. It is now exhibited at charity and commemorative events, such as the Avenue of Sail at the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012.

Drones become mainstream

As a result of this 1917 drone project, work on remote piloted vehicles continued in Britain and in 1935 the Queen Bee variant of de Havilland’s famous 'Moth' aircraft went into production. Before WWII, British air defence gunnery honed its skills on a fleet of more than 400 of these Aerial Targets. Some of these were still being used as remote controlled aircraft in the film industry well into the 1950s.

A Royal Air Force corporal demonstrates the controls of a de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee, while an officer pilot looks on. Flying the Queen Bee at such a low altitude using the control panel required considerable skill. In this photo we can see the wind generator or Ram Air Turbine (RAT) attached to the port fuselage just aft of the engine cowling. The turbine powers a pump which provided compressed air in flight to the pneumatic servo actuators in the fuselage, which in turn moved the controls. Image RAF.

Like Britain, the USA converted a few of its aircraft to remote control during the 1930s. A US admiral visiting Britain in early 1936 witnessed gunnery practise against a Queen Bee and, so it is said, the Americans coined the word 'drone' in homage to the Queen Bee.

In the early 1940s, the Radioplane Company in Van Nuys, California produced the first mass-produced small drone Aerial Targets for the US military. Norma Jeane Dougherty, later known as Marilyn Monroe, worked at the factory and was 'discovered' during a propaganda film shoot of the companies drones.

Marilyn Monroe building drones
The future Marilyn Monroe handling drone parts. Image by David Conover, public domain.

Today, drones are an integral part of the military, and are finding increasing uses and abuses in the civilian world. It all began more than 100 years ago right here in London.

Archibald Low went on to create many other inventions and was also noted for his prophetic visions of future technology. In 1976, twenty years after his death, Low was inducted into the New Mexico Museum of Space History’s ‘International Space Hall of Fame’ as 'The Father of Radio Guidance Systems'. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery, west London.

The full story, illustrated throughout, is told in 'The Dawn of the Drone' by Steve Mills, from Casemate publishing. Buy direct from the publisher for a £5 discount (January 2020).

Last Updated 15 January 2020

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