Minus the front-mounted propeller, the landing skis, and the wide wings, it’s hard not to notice the resemblance between this early 20th century innovation and contemporary military manifestations of the unmanned aircraft, like the MQ-1 Predator.
In fact, it’s the earliest specimen in a lineage of radio-controlled planes, the ancestors of today’s more powerful military drones. The Ruston Proctor Aerial Target, developed by Archibald Low in 1917, was flown—unsuccessfully—just a handful of times, but it and other early radio-planes set the stage for a century of breathtaking advancement in military unmanned aviation. It’s a story involving an amateur boxing champion, an aspiring model known later as Marilyn Monroe, and the origin of the term “drone.” Read on.
Archibald Low, the man behind the Ruston Proctor, was a man of many hats. His stint in unmanned aircraft was predecessed by dealings in such products as whistling egg boilers, gas turbines, and an early form of television he called TeleVista. He had something of a mercurial streak: a lover of the limelight who started more projects than he finished, Low was a quintessential maverick, fancying himself “too much of an individual” for institutions like school.
When World War I erupted in the summer of 1914, Low joined the military. He was promoted to captain within a few months of enlistment and was moved to the Royal Flying Corps, where he was tasked with developing a form of remote-controlled explosive aircraft—an early cruise missile, if you like. The “Aerial Target” project, as it was called, was actually a misnomer, designed to fool the Germans into thinking it was a project to test naval anti-aircraft capabilities. In 1917, the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target was launched using compressed air and flown for several minutes before its engine failed. It was flown several more times throughout its lifetime, with similar success.
Two other ventures in unmanned aircraft occurred in World War I following the Aerial Target project. The Curtiss-Sperry Aerial Torpedo flew in March 1918, the first UAV to use an automatic gyroscopic stabilizer. A cruise missile called the Kettering Bug, also using the Sperry gyroscopic system, was developed jointly by Charles F. Kettering and Orville Wright, the latter acting as aeronautical consultant. Like the Ruston Proctor, however, neither of these saw action before the close of the war in late 1918.
UAV interest in the U.S. dipped during the interwar period, but research and testing continued steadily in Britain. In 1935, the Royal Navy demonstrated a remote-controlled plane for anti-aircraft training called the Queen Bee. Among those witnessing the demonstration was one William Standley, a U.S. admiral and Chief of Naval Operations. Impressed, he advanced the idea of developing a similar operation for the Navy. In homage to the Queen Bee, the word “drone” was adopted by the Navy as a moniker for unmanned aircraft.
In homage to the Queen Bee, the word “drone” was adopted by the Navy as a moniker for unmanned aircraft.
The demand for drones ramped back up with World War II, and the drone operation championed by Standley was suddenly in full gear. The man in place to capitalize on this development was Reginald Denny, the dynamic aviation hobbyist and founder of Reginald Denny Industries. Denny served two years in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, where he became the heavyweight boxing champion of his brigade. (His manager later declared that Denny “shows unusual class, is fast, carries a wicked wallop, and has plenty of nerve.”) At the end of the war, he emigrated to the U.S. and made a name for himself in Hollywood, appearing in such movies as Anna Karenina and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
Beginning in the early 1930s, he developed an interest in radio-controlled airplanes, so he started Reginald Denny Industries between acting jobs. Beginning as a holding company for a model plane shop called Reginald Denny Hobby Shop, he began producing larger, military-grade drones by the end of the decade and, in 1940, won a contract with the U.S. Army for their OQ-2 Radioplane. The Radioplane was an aerial target plane (a real one), launched from a catapult and unrecoverable unless a parachute was attached. Over the course of the war, nearly 15,000 were manufactured.
Denny’s Hollywood career didn’t stumble: in that same period, he appeared in nine movies, including Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. His last movie before his death in 1967 was Batman, where he played a rich inventor named Commodore Schmidlapp.
Reginald Denny Industries was wildly successful, attracting enough attention that an Army photographer was dispatched to document its Van Nuys factory. One of the workers encountered there was Norma Jeane Dougherty, a pretty, freckled teenager working as a technician, who the photographer encouraged to pursue modeling. This brief exposure acted as a launching pad for Norma, who later achieved monumental fame under the pseudonym of Marilyn Monroe.
The radio-planes of World War II gave way to more advanced military drones in later years. Lockheed began work on the D-21 in the early 1960s, one of the first recoverable drones intended for enemy reconnaissance; in the 1970s, later models were used extensively in Vietnam. This technology, in turn, paved the way for today’s extra-military explosion in sUAVs.
It’s hard to imagine that Reginald Denny, or even the visionary Archibald Low, could have anticipated the breadth of commercial application that drones would touch: the required technology—the fine gyroscopic stabilizers, the takeoff and landing mechanisms, the remote transmission systems—was still largely undeveloped. Still, glancing over this remarkable heritage, one can’t help but feel a sense of obligation to honor and emulate the fearless innovation of these pioneers.
A tip of the hat from Skyward to the men and women who made the drone industry possible. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.