Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace System

Fixed wing unmanned aircraft technology developed concurrently with similar manned aircraft throughout the early years. The unmanned versions of manned aircraft depended on two functions: automatic piloting and remote control. By 1912, the first automatic piloting system was flown aboard a Curtiss seaplane.7 Leveraging Nikola Tesla’s advances in remote control, Elmer & Lawrence Sperry and Peter Hewitt married automatic piloting and remote control to realize Tesla’s early dream of remote flight.8 Using Navy dollars, the Sperry/Hewitt team built six Curtiss Sperry Aerial Torpedo aircraft, flying what is recognized as the first unmanned aircraft mission in U.S. history on March 6, 1918.9 Later that year, the Navy stopped paying for the Sperry/Hewitt unmanned development after all six Aerial Torpedo aircraft failed and crashed, and an unmanned Curtiss N-9 disappeared into the horizon.10

ii. The Golden Age: Unmanned Flight from World War I to World War II

Attempting to feed on dollars from another military branch, Curtiss developed an unmanned version of the Messenger (itself a variant of the Navy N-9) for the United States Army in 1920.11 A poor orienteer of the Army’s acquisition process, Sperry died in 1923 before the program resulted in remote flight, and his company closed its doors. British and U.S. Navy unmanned aircraft development continued throughout the early twenties, resulting in repeatable remote unmanned flights of a Curtiss N-9 by September of 1924.

While the U.S. Navy focused on unmanned aircraft as flying torpedoes, the Royal Navy pushed the evolution of UAVs by focusing on their role as target drone. The first such drone, the Fairey Queen, became the first operationally reusable unmanned aircraft, and exposed the difficulty of shooting down aircraft from a platform at sea. Produced in 1933, the Fairey Queen survived four months of intense fire from British naval vessels before being brought down.12 The Royal Navy purchased and flew 380 Queen Bees, which flew as high as 17,000 feet MSL to a range of over


7 The UAV and the Current and Future Regulatory Construct for Integration into the National Airspace System, Mark Edward Peterson, 71 J. Air L. & Com. 521 (2006) [citations omitted] [hereinafter UAV Regulatory Construct].

8 UVS Intl’l, Historical Threads Leading to Today’s Unmanned Vehicles in the USA, in 2004 Yearbook; UAVs Global Perspective 108, 111 (2004) [hereinafter UAVs Global Perspective].

9 Laurence R. Newcome, Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (2004). British and Australian authorities argue that unmanned flights in those countries preceded the Aerial Torpedo flight of 1918, but that argument is likely best left for the pub.

10 Nova: Spies that Fly, KPBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/spiesfly/uavs.html, cited January 1, 2013.

11 Id. at 19-20.

12 While Navy gunners tried for months to bring down the Fairey Queen with gunfire, Army officers are quick to point out that this may not have been the result of a particularly hard to kill target, arguing that Army gunners could have brought down the Fairey Queen on the first pass. This argument is admittedly hard to test. –DC