In the 21st century, military aviation is increasingly making use of unmanned aircraft. They are known by a number of names with the American term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) being the most common while in Britain they are often referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) but to the public at large they are known simply as drones. It is hard to escape these fascinating aircraft as reports of their exploits in the global war on terror regularly make it on to the evening news. Traditionally, these drones have been used primarily in the reconnaissance role but it might surprise many to know that unmanned military aviation for intelligence gathering purposes is not a new concept and actually dates back to the 19th century.
The story of these early drones begins with the invention of the first practical photograph taken by a camera in 1816 by Nicéphore Niépce which revolutionised mankind’s ability to record history. While the early photographs were of poor quality they were enough to encourage others to work on perfecting the practice and improving the quality much to the disdain of the artisan community who felt that photographs threatened the livelihoods of painters. The poor quality of early photographs meant that the British military at large were relatively slow in showing an interest in the new recording technique but a few of its ranks did have more forethought.
John McCosh was a Scottish born Army Surgeon serving with the Bengal Army when in 1848 the Second Anglo-Sikh War broke out. During the course of the conflict McCosh took several photographs using a quarter plate camera that produced small prints of 10cm x 8cm. Many of his photographs were mere portraits of officers or the local land but were the first photographs taken in the course of an armed conflict. While historically significant these photographs were of little official use other than for the upper class officers to boast of their accomplishments.
All that began to change however when the Crimean War broke out less than six years later. In 1854 an amateur photographer named Gilbert Elliot was commissioned by the British government to photograph Russian fortifications along the Wingo Sound in the Baltic Sea. In March of that year he set up his camera aboard the British warship Hecla and took numerous photographs of the Russian defences which were praised for their clarity given that they were taken aboard a moving warship. Sadly, none of these photographs have survived to the present day.
Thanks to these early pioneers the British military began to take the idea of photography for reconnaissance purposes more seriously. At the same time British Army officers observed developments in the United States regarding aerial photography from an observation balloon. In 1860 the American James W. Black took what is considered to be the first aerial photograph in history when he photographed Boston Common while suspended from an air balloon at an altitude of 1200ft. It was an impressive feat considering the laborious process of taking a picture back then that required the image to remain in the viewfinder for sometimes as many as a few minutes. Worse still, Black had to operate the camera and relay instructions back down to his ground team under cover and in complete darkness as any light on the plate that held the image would fade it. He also had to return to Earth and process the image within 20 minutes or it would fade naturally and the image would be lost.
Throughout the 1860s pioneers like Black persisted and while still a largely impractical affair the world at large was getting it’s first real bird’s eye views of the world. As the 1870s dawned some began to look at the whole process and began to contemplate the idea of sending up a balloon fitted with a camera that could be controlled from the ground. This had numerous advantages such as needing smaller balloons and of course being much safer and easier than having someone suspended underneath them. The proponents of such balloons argued that they could be very useful for spying on the enemy and gathering intelligence on enemy positions, a fact which had largely been proven in the Crimea by Elliot.
Unfortunately controlling the mechanism for the camera proved extremely problematic. A number of efforts were made to remotely control the camera action but almost all failed. Some attempted to use a series of pulleys attached to the camera handle while others used mechanical devices to remotely control the action all of which failed. Then in 1877 the British photographer and inventor, Walter B. Woodbury, concocted a potentially revolutionary system involving electrical currents to instruct the camera when to take the photograph.
Having patented his idea he then presented his invention to the British Army. Woodbury’s idea was to have the operators move the balloon and its tether close to the enemy’s position and then begin the process of inflation. The camera would be set up underneath on a gimbal-like device invented by a Frenchman named Nadar to stabilise it and then when it was ready for deployment the brake on the tether would be released and the balloon would go upwards to a satisfactory height where the enemy was visible. The operator could then send a series of electrical pulses up to the balloon via an electric cable to trigger the photographic process. This is essentially the same operating concept as modern battlefield UAVs.
Unfortunately for Woodbury the system proved unreliable. Often there was not enough electrical current to reach the balloon at the end of the wire or the signal became interrupted resulting in half developed photographs if any were made at all. Had he corrected this problem then the British Army may have taken more of an interest but in the end they were unconvinced and despite the promise of the system Woodbury abandoned development of his invention.
New camera technology was arriving all the time and soon operating one or even two cameras by a single man in a balloon became more practical and he could take several photographs before being winched back down. Another advantage of manned balloons was that the operator could focus the camera on to a target whereas with unmanned balloons there was no way to guarantee that the camera was looking at the area of interest. This spelled the end of unmanned balloons for photographic reconnaissance although there would be later experiments in Russia and France but none came to fruition. Nevertheless these experiments produced unmanned aircraft that are truly the spiritual ancestors of today’s drones.