The U.S. Army Got Its First Drones 55 Years Ago

Today’s robots are much, much better

The U.S. Army Got Its First Drones 55 Years Ago The U.S. Army Got Its First Drones 55 Years Ago
The U.S. Army bought its first spy drone in 1959. After more than five decades of technological advancement, today’s unmanned aircraft do much more …... The U.S. Army Got Its First Drones 55 Years Ago

The U.S. Army bought its first spy drone in 1959. After more than five decades of technological advancement, today’s unmanned aircraft do much more … with much less human support.

Radioplane’s AN/USD-1 system—also known as Surveillance Drone 1 or SD-1—originally was a target for training anti-aircraft gunners. These early drones were similar in size and shape to the current RQ-7 Shadow.

An SD-1 weighed 430 pounds and had a wingspan of 11.5 feet. The current RQ-7B checks in at 375 pounds, with a wing spanning 14 feet.

The SD-1 quickly evolved. The Army expected it to fly over the battlefield searching for enemy troops and spotting targets for artillery. The Shadow performs the same basic functions, as well as teaming up with attack helos, relaying radio messages and, in the near future, maybe even attacking the enemy on its own.

But this is where the similarities end.

An MQM-57 drone. Air Force photo

An early proposal for a drone unit equipped with the AN/USD-1 included more than 40 troops, according to an official Army document that we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The platoon was supposed to possess an impressive 12 drones.

But the aircraft could only carry film cameras—and only one kind of camera at a time. Ground crews would have to change out the equipment to take pictures at night. The unit needed a darkroom on the back of a truck to develop the photographs in the field.

The control equipment also had a relatively short range. The platoon needed both of its ground control stations to fly a single drone out to its maximum range—a round trip of only around 100 miles.

In addition, the pilots could only tell what the drone was doing if they could see it. A separate radar had to keep track of the pilotless plane when it was out of sight, according to a 1962 operations manual.

Long-distance missions were really out of the question, anyway. Radioplane’s craft—which the Pentagon eventually renamed MQM-57—was able to stay aloft for just 30 to 40 minutes.

An AH-64 Apache gunship flies over an RQ-7 Shadow on its launch catapult. Army photo

Today, a typical Shadow platoon has four unmanned planes. But the unit requires fewer than 30 soldiers and can fly two of the aircraft at once.

The RQ-7 also has a slightly shorter range—67 miles—but doesn’t need any special radars to keep tabs on it. Now, the pilots see what the drone sees, even at night, through a television camera. The darkroom is long gone.

AAI’s Shadow drone can loiter for hours over a specific location, as well. And so-called “remote video terminals”—which look like militarized laptops—can pipe the live video feed straight to nearby units in combat.

These improvements also mean that more soldiers have access to drones. By the 1960s, every one of the ground branch’s divisions was supposed to have received a dozen MQM-57s.

Now, all of the Army’s combat brigades—more than 60 of them—have a platoon of Shadows to keep watch over their operations. Other units have RQ-7s, as well.

The ground combat branch is working to make still better drones available to more soldiers. The Army could soon have unmanned spies that fit in a pants pocket or pilotless craft that stay in the air forever.