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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Drone Flight and Failure: the United States' Secret Trials, Experiments and Operations in Unmanning, 1936-1973

  • Author(s): Chandler, Katherine Fehr
  • Advisor(s): Bates, David W.
  • Thompson, Charis
  • et al.

I examine the precursors to contemporary unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) to ask what is at stake in the designation "unmanned?" The apparent misnomer dissociates technologies and humans, occluding how international interventions, including surveillance, military support, signals intelligence, and targeted killing, are carried out through actions networked between humans and nonhumans. I use a genealogical approach to address how tensions and contradictions articulated by unmanning emerge, using the development, operation and failure of unmanned systems to complicate divisions between human and nonhuman; "us" and the enemy; immersion and distance; military and industry; and above and below.

I identify two phases in the development of remote controlled and unmanned aircraft in the United States: targeting and reconnaissance. Contemporary UCAVs loop together these practices, even as they separate socio-political relations from technical artifacts and their resultant role in geopolitics. In the first period between 1936 and 1944, drone technologies shape and were shaped by targeting. I begin in 1936, when a Navy program to produce remote controlled aircraft was given the code name drone. Drones from the interwar era were developed as targets to train anti-aircraft gunners, even while the technologies also became the first television guided weapons, described as "American Kamikazes," used briefly in World War II. In the second phase between 1956 and 1973, I explore so-called unmanning. This part turns to pilotless reconnaissance aircraft from the Cold War conceived as replacements for manned spy planes after the Francis Powers U-2 incident in 1960, also based on a target plane, the Firebee. These projects were used for over 3000 pilotless flights to collect surveillance over Southeast Asia.

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