While the skies are set to be alive with unmanned aerial vehicles this Christmas, this plague of drones might in the end actually be to light aviation’s benefit
to develop a micro-transponder that will allow a drone to emit a squawk, showing its position on air traffic radar systems.
Aside from its immediate UAV safety aspect, this new technology could be a very good thing for those of us who fly small or old aircraft. One of the biggest challenges facing light aircraft users has been the absence of a low-cost, low-power transponder; as many older aircraft, gliders and microlights simply don’t have the power systems to support the currently available equipment. Already the LAA and others are looking at the new Uav-led technology, to see whether it can be developed into something of benefit to ‘occupied aircraft’ users. It might be that drones could turn out to be our buddies after all!
As ‘Open Cockpit’ is also supposed to look at our aviation heritage, perhaps I should continue by recalling some of the earliest ground controlled UAVS. The DH82B Queen Bee was prime among them. Designed in the 1930s as a radiocontrolled pilotless drone to act as a gunnery target for warships, the Queen Bee was effectively a Tiger Moth with an all-wooden fuselage (to minimise radio interference) and was guided by a radio receiver in the rear cockpit.
It could be flown with either a conventional undercarriage from suitable cliff-top locations or fitted with floats to allow it to be catapulted, using cordite charges, from a platform above a warship’s gun turret, then retrieved from the sea at the end of a gunnery exercise. The radio control system itself was a masterpiece of ingenuity, using the best technology available at the time; pulsed signals from a GPO telephone dial.
The dial was placed atop a tall operating console, with the ‘pilot’ standing behind. Dialling ‘3’ initiated a turn to the left. ‘4’ levelled the wings and ‘5’ initiated a turn to the right. To land the aeroplane, the operator guided the Queen Bee into wind and when the trailing aerial touched the surface, a ‘landing valve’ simultaneously selected ‘up’ elevator to put the aeroplane into the landing attitude and earthed the ignition to stop the engine.
Sometimes things didn’t quite go to plan. One lovely story tells of a ‘Bee’ which suffered radio interference, apparently from a BBC dance band broadcast being played on a wireless in the wardroom of one of His Majesty’s battleships. The aircraft refused to respond to instructions and repeatedly buzzed the ship’s bridge before crashing into the sea. The captain, in true Nelsonian tradition stood his ground, merely raising the collar of his duffle coat slightly each time the aircraft attacked!
Another early drone boasted Hollywood connections. On the eve of World War Two, British ex-royal Flying Corps pilot, keen aeromodeller and sometime movie actor, Reginald Denny helped establish a company called Radioplane at Metropolitan Airport, close to the famous studios. They produced the first radiocontrolled target drones for training Army and Navy gunners, and in June 1945, the army magazine Yank sought to boost morale by presenting a suitable defence worker as pinup girl.
Heading the editorial team was one Captain Ronald Reagan, an acting buddy of Reginald Denny, so it was logical he focussed (ahem) on one of Radioplane’s female staff. Reagan selected a section of pictures featuring a young propeller technician; nineteen-year-old Norma Jean Baker Dougherty. The pin-up shots led to a Hollywood screen test, a change of name and a career very different from assembling drones. The girl’s new name was Marilyn Monroe and the rest, as they say, is history.
Drones could turn out to be our buddies after all...