An Unmanly Guide to Pilotless Aircraft: Top 13 Unmanned aircraft

During the War, actor Hedy Lamarr was the co-inventor of frequency hopping. A technology that would later make WiFi and global positioning systems possible. Her innovation had a huge impact on remotely piloted aircraft. There is some controversy about who invented frequency-hopping, the inventor Tesla was involved in initial research.

The sky of the 21st Century is abuzz with soulless flying machines, but let’s not hate on them. As Stephen Caulfield shows us, what they lack in poetry they make up for in ingenuity.

  1. de Havilland Queen Bee
Never in the field of human conflict has a leader so wanted a morning whisky

de Havilland’s infuriating decision to start a name with a lowercase letter long predated Hip-Hop’s preoccupation with tricksy spelling, and has condemned aviation historians to artfully deploy a variety of odd sentence constructions to avoid starting sentences with a ‘d’. Still they did do some pioneering work on remotely piloted aeroplanes.

The Queen Bee was a development of the DH-82A Tiger Moth primary trainer. A cheap-and-cheerful approach to training anti-aircraft artillery forces it utilised existing technology in a proven airframe. Catapult launched, this drone was flown within line of sight by a ground operator. It could land and be reused or get blown to matchsticks as the moment required. There was a twin-float version for fleet gunners to work with, too. You can see one of these early disposables at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum if the world is open the time you read this.

The same length as a piloted Tiger Moth.

  1. Raduga KS-1 Komet

Cruise missiles are aircraft and munitions, pre-programmed suicide robots (though a pessimist could argue that we all are) . You couldn’t really do a lot with them after pushing the launch button. At least not before the advent of the computer chip and digital satellite communications. The Komet is here with the Snark representing a long line of cruise missiles beginning with the Fiesler Fi-103, also known as the V-1 or Doodblebug. Built with the wings, tail assembly and powerplant of a MiG-15, the Komet appears to have had similar performance metrics. This crude weapon helped make the brinksmanship of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis even more dangerous.

The same length as a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15.

  1. Northrop SM-62 Snark

According to the writer Kurt Vonnegut, a ‘snarf’ is someone with a particular fetish the author of this article has asked us not to detail (you can find it here though). Perhaps this is why Snarf from the Thundercats was so named. A Snark, on the other hand, is “an imaginary animal (used typically with reference to a task or goal that is elusive or impossible to achieve).”

Big and dumb. That is pretty much history’s verdict on an expensive, problem-plagued machine designed to deliver atomic weapons of ridiculous power. Take the notorious test firing of a single Snark in 1959 from Cape Canaveral. It was supposed to perform a return trip via a point near Puerto Rico. The Snark in question began drifting to starboard not long after takeoff. Umpteen course correction signals were tried. Then self-destruct codes were sent as the Snark streaked off across the Caribbean. Armed fighters scrambled. Too late. Best guesses (and some moderately credible wreckage found in the 1980s) indicate Snark 53-8172 had a Brazilian beach vacation on its bucket list.

The same length as a Vickers Wellington Mk. IC.

  1. IAI Heron/Super Heron

Thanks to a suite of sensors and data links the Heron trades in information. It is also built for those with patience. A Heron can spend over fifty hours in the air. As drone systems proliferate the Heron has found a ready export market. These particular machines are operated by several European nations, mid-level powers like Australia and Canada, and emerging powers including Turkey, India and Brazil. Nobody in this unbalanced, overheated world seems to be free of the need for this type of machine now. From combat missions to border patrol and resource monitoring it seems just a matter of who can afford what model. Like the other post-9/11 machines here the Heron emphasises lower operating costs than crewed jet fighters and large patrol aircraft.

The same length as two McDonnell XF-85 Goblins

  1. QB- & QF- series target drone conversions

The Pentagon is unmatched for the sheer diversity and number of aircraft it has employed over the years. What to do with aging, obsolescent ones? Transfer to reserve units or client state air forces are options. Longer term storage, parts donation and scrapping also happens. The most exciting use for aging warbirds is as raw material for a multi-decade target conversion program. You could stock a respectable museum with the type list blown to pieces over the sea and the desert ranges to keep America’s fighter pilots and weapon designers on form. Read it and weep (or at least enjoy the videos): F6F Hellcat, QB-17 Flying Fortress, QF-9 Cougar, QT-33 Shooting Star, QB-47 Stratojet, QF-86 Sabre, QF-100 Super Sabre, QF-102 and PQM-102 Delta Dagger, QF-104 Starfighter, QF-106 Delta Dart, QF-4 Phantom II, QF-16 Fighting Falcon.

Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. part of the famous American Kennedy family, was killed when the BQ-8 (a B-24 converted to a remote control flying bomb) aircraft he was piloting accidentally exploded over East SuffolkEngland.

The same length as before conversion.

  1. General Atomics MQ-1 Predator & MQ-9 Reaper

If the United States seems to dominate this list it is perhaps because America, well, looks to dominate the world. Dominion doesn’t come cheap, mind you. Overlapping strategic commitments and endless warfare in Eurasia and Africa drive the cost, complexity and variety of weapon systems the world’s only superpower throws at its problems. Drones are not immune to this process of ratcheting up costs. Long endurance missions in the face of very little meaningful opposition typify the working day of these platforms. With their economical turbine (MQ-9) and piston-engine (MQ-1) powerplants and straight glider-like wings they orbit relentlessly above contested places all over the globe. The Reaper is a bigger improved version of the Predator with a much larger warload and greater endurance.

One has a ‘Y’ shaped tail and the other a ‘^’ though I can’t recall which is which. Neither are related to the Planet Satellite.

Enormous amounts of data stream to and from these machines justifying decisions to unleash precision-guided munitions. Just wait until the world’s large, urban police departments get their hands on such things, let alone terrorists.

The same length as a Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

  1. Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk

Whatever our cares about the ethics of drone warfare, the drones really are here to stay. Coming of age in the era of US president Barack Obama the Global Hawk is the Rolls-Royce of asymmetrical, endless warfare. It’s a high-endurance, subsonic platform for all kinds of sensors. In a complicated, post-9/11 world in which a single superpower operates globally this is what you get. A contrast to the Aerosonde I in size and the Snark in brains? Yes.


The same length as a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21bis

  1. AAI Aerosonde I The first unmanned aerial vehicle to fly across the Atlantic. Not bad for such a little thing. ‘Standing’ in aviation history beside Alcock and Brown’s lumbering Vickers Vimy. An Aerosonde I weighs about thirty pounds when loaded for takeoff. Its powerplant is a one-and-three-quarter horsepower, single-cylinder unit sourced from the radio-controlled model airplane industry. The Aerosonde I was designed in the late 1990s in Australia as a civilian weather data gathering platform. It flies directly into typhoons and hurricanes all the time.

The same length as Kate Moss lying on a sofa.

  1. Ryan Model 147/AQM-34 Firebee

The Firebees are an entire family of unmanned aerial vehicles. They have gone everywhere and done everything drones can. Fast jets with rockets and then missiles needed realistic targets to spar with, hence the Firebee. Reconnaissance and electronic warfare grew ever more important as the Cold War ground on and the Firebees were found fit for more active jobs than just getting shot down by their own side for practice. These machines made a remarkable evolutionary journey becoming more sophisticated and capable. Communist China even copied the Firebee. Firebees saw wide-ranging action during the Vietnam war. Little of this is widely remembered now but Firebees flew decoy missions, did photo reconnaissance work and dropped guided munitions for years in that unhappy conflict. Firebee crews could sometimes get beyweem forty to sixty successful missions from a single example.

The same length as a Cessna 140.

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  1. Grumman X-47B

The stealthy X-47B was the first unmanned combat aerial vehicle to land on an aircraft carrier. Trials found the X-47B compatible with operations on the big USN fleet carriers including catapult launches and arrested landings. The X-47B has a wingspan of just over sixty feet and is turbofan-powered. It offers strong hints as to the future of military aviation, naval or otherwise. While it doesn’t appear the world’s largest and richest war makers are fully ready for unmanned warplanes it must be impossible for them to ignore the success of programmes like this one. Some of the gains made by the sleek X-47B are apparently being rolled into an air-to-air refuelling drone project.

The same length as a Grumman TBF Avenger.

  1. Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie

With a dynamic appearance and name befitting an evil alien overlord, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie is a secretive USAF sixth generation drone project. Generally comparable to the EADS Barracuda and Sukhoi Su-70, the Valkyrie is a technology demonstrator engineered for stealth and utilising very powerful digital systems. Touted for the Valkyrie is a ”wingman” role. This would involve a sortie with a manned aircraft that could also carry the Valkyrie aloft initially. The drone would then break toward a higher risk objective, sparing the manned controller aircraft the dangers of the ‘hot zone’ . Such a servant would also have a protective role to play if its master came under attack. The Valkyrie is one entrant in the Pentagon’s Skyborg program of attritable (damn right spellcheck will underline that) and affordable unmanned warplanes. Watch this space.

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The same length as a Westland Lysander Mk.III.

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  1. Radioplane OQ- & TDD- series

We owe the first mass production, pure pilotless designs to Reginald Denny. Denny was an ex-pat English actor and Royal Flying Corps veteran. Between gigs in Los Angeles one sunny day he was distracted by a buzzing sound. Denny discovered the noise was the thimble engine on a neighbourhood boy’s toy plane.

Denny was also a champion amateur boxer

Denny’s vision of industrial scale remote control aircraft stemmed from that encounter and would prove very successful. Over 15,000 Radioplanes were built between 1939 and the early 1950s. In a connection back to the world of acting Denny’s firm was Marilyn Monroe’s employer during California’s great wartime aviation boom. Further infusing Hollywood glamour to those days is the fact that actor Hedy Lamarr separately advanced unpiloted flying. During the war, Lamarr was the co-inventor of frequency hopping. A technology that would later make WiFi and global positioning systems possible.

The same length as a Stits SA-2A Sky Baby (OQ-2).

  1. SF Express FH-98

A hundred years of pilotlessness takes us full circle from the Queen Bee to another biplane. The FH-98 is a cargo drone version of the Shijiazhuang Y-5B agricultural aircraft. Another edition of the eternal Antonov An-2. Industry giant SF Express is China’s number two freight and courier services firm. They deftly chose the Y-5B platform for its reliability, short field performance and the fact it can haul a ton and a half of cargo. Brained up with the latest tech for unpiloted errands the FH-98 made its first deliveries of perishable foodstuffs in the summer of 2020. Cargo service to island locations and between agricultural sites and large cities is envisioned.

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The same length as a Fairey Albacore.


  1. phuzz

    JFK’s older brother, Joseph Kennedy, died when the warhead of the BQ-8 (a modified B-24) he was piloting exploded in mid-air, before he and his co-pilot had jumped out.
    (The BQ-8 required a human crew to get it off the ground who would then parachute out).

  2. Lord Lucan

    Enjoy your site but must point out that the Northrop Grumman RQ4C Global Hawk as well as the MQ4C Triton (Naval derivative) do not carry any weapons. I have “flown” both versions.

  3. Lord Lucan

    I see that you deleted my reply. I can’t and won’t post my real name and email address. My desire was that you would correct the misinformation in your post.
    Neither the Global Hawk nor Triton UAS carry weapons.

  4. Lord Lucan

    Understood. Thanks again for providing such an informative and enjoyable site. I always look forward to reading it.

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