Drones in theory (Part 1: Introduction)

Very much attention is being paid to drones, and it appears as if some technological sexiness and a feeling of novelty are the main drivers - not necessarily a theoretical anticipation of their usefulness.

Nagayama's RC tank, article from 1930
The feeling of novelty is deceiving, for sure:
The German navy used unmanned remote-controlled boats for decades as minebreakers (triggering naval mines), minehunters all over the world have used remote-controlled submersible drones to identify and to blow up naval mines, and the first unmanned powered boat was built and tested by Siemens around 1870.
The first robot tank was built at the latest in 1930, and envisaged decades earlier by futurists. Both the remote control by radio and the tank itself were technically feasible prior to the First World War.
Unmanned aircraft are nothing particularly new either. Target and reconnaissance drones were common by the 70's. An early photographic reconnaissance drone flew in 1939. The first target drones (modified biplanes, developed in 1931) embarrassed the Royal Navy in an exercise by stubbornly resisting its anti-air firepower for an hour during the 1930's (link). The first attempt to build an aerial target drone was from 1916, but it failed because they didn't get the launch right.

As 292 photo reconnaissance drones, first RC flight 1939
Guided munitions are similarly old; remote-controlled torpedo gliders were already tested in 1917; precision guided munitions were in principle available before bombers had a useful-enough payload.

Drones are no real novelties, for sure. The methods of their control haven't evolved very much either. We still don't entrust unmanned cars to stay on the road on a battlefield (still under development), much less to negotiate off-road terrain or make tactical decisions. Satellite communications remote control is but a very elaborate for of radio remote control. A 'modern' Reaper drone isn't really much more advanced in concept than the combination of WW2's As 292 drone (ability to return) and WW2's Aphrodite drone (RC guidance with operator using video from inside the cockpit).* The components were refined and a satellite serves as relay. Early attempts to drop munitions from drones date back to WW2 as well and guided munitions were employed from drones in 1970's tests.
Technological sexiness and a false sense of novelty are poor reasons to spend much on drones, so let's look if there are some actual reasons to do so. I was disappointed that this in my opinion really obvious thought has no reflections on most if not all published works on drones. It's pointless to strive for a comprehensive literature review, but what I looked into over the last years was plenty, and what I found was rarely** more than a small, specialised assumption about drones. The potential of drones appears to be the most vague in regard to naval drones with some drone marketing efforts being outright comical to those who knows the history of naval drones.
The opposite is the fandom for the X-47B bomber drone: Its fans associate it with reliable penetration of defended airspace and precision strikes on targets far, far away from the base (carrier). These assumptions are in stark contrast to previous "stealth" aircraft experiences, which emphasize that even stealth aircraft benefit greatly from if not require support for high survivability. The existence of relatively long wavelength radars and the generally observable tendency of very specialised tools to disappoint in wartime cast some doubts on these expectations as well.

I will discuss the very diverse topic of military drones in later parts
("Part 2: Aerial drones" tomorrow).


* (edited in in March):  Also see this. I knew I forgot something.
**: Farley tries to mate drones and military theory.

1 comment:

  1. "Guided munitions are similarly old; remote-controlled torpedo gliders were already tested in 1917; precision guided munitions were in principle available before bombers had a useful-enough payload."

    Stupid me thinks these are all the tools necessary to launch strikes from outside gun range during the last naval battles of WWI and would have been one of the first ideas to launch during WWII. In comparison, pilots or even naval aviators are an expensive commodity likely to be rapidly used up if striking on hardend military targets.
    Isn't there someone publishing on the application of radio controlled devices during the great wars or in their aftermath?