The U.S. Army Wanted to Launch T.V. Cameras From Howitzers
Special shells would have let troops snoop on the enemy
American troops suspect enemies are nearby, so they lob an artillery shell. As the round careens toward its target, a T.V. camera with a parachute ejects from the casing and, tada! You now have a floating spy camera.
This was the scenario U.S. Army engineers envisioned when they began work on the Artillery Launched Television program in September 1973. The cameras would serve as troops’ eyes in the sky.
“In many military situations, reconnaissance of enemy-controlled areas is desired to permit more effective use of weapon systems,” engineers at the Army’s Land Warfare Laboratory — a.k.a. LWL — stated in a report nine months later. “One such technique, which would be more cost-effective than drones … is to use an artillery shell to launch a parachute-carried T.V. system.”
While the Army had gotten its first drones more than a decade before, those pilotless spies used traditional film cameras and could only stay in the air for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. Artillery units that could quickly set up their own live video feeds might give soldiers an advantage.
But in the end, the small unmanned planes won out … not the artillery-launched T.V. camera.
“This task was developed to perform a design study of an artillery launched, parachute-carried, aerial T.V. reconnaissance system,” Army technicians explained in a separate overview of LWL’s projects. To save money, the ground combat branch wanted a setup that made use of “existing equipment.”
LWL hired Fairchild Space and Defense Systems to build the prototype camera. Everything had to fit inside the body of an M-485 155-millimeter artillery shell. The M-485 was a so-called “base-ejecting round.” At the right moment, the fuze would pop-off the bottom of the projectile so the cargo could fall out.
In the unmodified M-485, parachutes would yank out a giant flare. The charge would burn at 1,000,000 candle power — some 10 times brighter than direct sunlight — for two minutes.
LWL and Fairchild planned to use the same procedure but with a video camera instead of a flare. Troops could watch the feed in real time or record the images onto magnetic tape. “Upon striking the ground or at a given time after deploying, the T.V. unit would self-destruct in order to free the airways and to prevent enemy utilization of the system,” LWL added.
Fairchild’s design combined a relatively small video camera, transmitter and power supply all suspended in the air by parachutes. The Army supplied the Delstar Model DS-500FC transmitter. The rest of the equipment was already in production to various degrees.
While the underlying concept was relatively simple, no one was sure whether the miniaturized setup could provide useful imagery. The sensitive gear might not even survive the fall or shock from being blasted out of a cannon.
In laboratory tests and with the system strapped to a UH-1 helicopter, engineers discovered — unsurprisingly — that it was easier to figure out what was happening if the camera was closer to objects of interest. At 1,000 or 2,000 feet high, the evaluators had a large field of view but couldn’t necessarily make anything out.
Still, the engineers were satisfied that the basic setup at least worked. Next, they tied the cameras to individuals who then parachuted to the ground. Eventually, technicians hand-dropped the systems out of helicopters.
Unfortunately, various factors made it difficult for LWL and Fairchild to run controlled experiments. With the wind pushing the package around in the air, the technicians found it was “impossible to obtain a second drop to provide greater detail of some picture taken on a previous drop,” according to the report.
This would be an issue if troops fired the whole device from a howitzer. LWL noted that the standard M-485’s so-called “circular error probable” — how far away from the intended target the shells would land on average — was more than 600 feet.
While fine for a light burning brighter than the sun, a camera looking for a specific target would be in trouble. And that’s if the round got where it was going in the first place and successfully connected with the monitor back at base.
Launching the round with their biggest propelling charge, Army gunners could hurl a regular M-485 over nearly nine miles. But the T.V. camera still needed an unobstructed connection with its receiver as it slowly fell to earth.
“The system will not be able to see through clouds, heavy ground fog, smoke, etc,” LWL made clear in its conclusions. The engineers hoped to troubleshoot those issues in further tests.
We don’t know if Fairchild or the Army ever made any fully functional prototype rounds or shot them out of howitzers. When LWL closed its doors in June 1974, the ground combat branch was still working on the system.
By the end of the 1980s, the Army appears to have completed abandoned the idea in favor of drones. By the early 1990s, the ground combat branch had created units to work with the new RQ-1 Predators and RQ-5 Hunters … and the rest is history.