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A Historical Perspective On UAS

A Pathfinder Project sent a UAV to the Smithsonian following a historic flight.
By Patrick C. Miller | November 12, 2015

Many people view unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as new and somewhat mysterious technology, but this is a misconception. Unmanned aircraft technology has been around for more than 70 years.

For example, the local museum in the small town where I grew up had on display a World War II era radio-controlled drone that was used to train anti-aircraft gunners. A recent visit to the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, Arizona, demonstrated just how long the U.S. military has been using UAS. It has at least six drones in its collection.

One of the most unique is the Culver PQ-14B Cadet, an optionally piloted aircraft that goes back to 1940. In addition to World War II prop-driven target drones, the Pima museum also has jet-powered reconnaissance drones from the Vietnam era and a helicopter drone used for anti-submarine warfare during the 60s and 70s.

A tour of the nearby 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group—better known as the desert boneyard where retired aircraft are mothballed—revealed dozens of former Cold War era jet fighters being converted for use as target drones.

So the military had a history with drones long before the public became familiar with the sight of DJI quadcopters flitting around in neighborhood parks. It’s only recently that the technology has been refined to the point where it can be safely used in the civilian world.

What got me to thinking about drone history was a conversation this week with Charlton Evans, program manager for Insitu’s commercial and civil operations. I called him to discuss the company’s recent ScanEagle UAS test flights in New Mexico with BNSF Railway. They were conducted as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Project Pathfinder, which works with industry to help integrate UAS into the national airspace.

The same ScanEagle—registration number N202SE—used to inspect the BNSF rail line in New Mexico was also used by Insitu in Alaska to fly for ConocoPhillips’ oil and gas operations in 2013. This makes it the first UAS to fly commercial beyond-line-of-sight missions in the U.S. and in the contiguous 48 states.

As a result, Evans said the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has asked Insitu to donate the aircraft for display, a request the company is likely to honor.

“It’s neat to make a little history now and again,” Evans said. “I don’t know how many aviation firsts there are left to make, but this is definitely a couple of them that we’re proud of.”

The idea that an aircraft which made its first flight in 2002 is now a museum piece seems a bit unusual, but it’s a sight aviation history buffs will certainly get used to.