We are used to the daily reports on the activities of military combat drones, and the accompanying public opinion both pro and con on their use. With the ability to control a drone from a long distance, the loss of a drone does not cause injury or death to the pilot. Since there is no pilot, the drone can be far lighter and have better performance since it does not have a provide an environment to support the pilot nor worry about subjecting the pilot to G forces beyond what a human can survive. According to Wikipedia, the first armed drone was flown by Iran in the late 1980s in the Iraq-Iran War.
Apparently, Wikipedia forgot about the Gyrodyne QH-50C DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) Drone. The unmanned remote controlled helicopter was used by the US Navy on destroyers beginning in 1962 as part of the Navy’s counter to Soviet submarine threats. The drone could carry two Mark 44 homing torpedoes or one Mark 46 torpedo, the current NATO standard torpedo. The program was cancelled in 1969, but they continued to fly from Japanese destroyers until 1977, and as late as 2006 at the White Sands test range to tow targets and calibrate radar systems. During the Vietnam War, a television camera was added so the DASH SNOOPY’s (as they were then called) could be used as airborne spotters for naval gunfire.
The DASH Drone had two counter-rotating blades on a single co-axial shaft to control torque, so did not need a tail rotor. Since there was no crew, the drone was viewed as expendable. It used off-the-shelf industrial electronics with no back-ups. About 80% of the failures were the result of a single-point failure in the electronics, with only 10% traced to “pilot” error, with the remaining 10% traced to engine or other mechanical failures.
It weighed about 1,200 pounds empty, with a max takeoff weight of a little over a ton. It cruised at 58 mph, with a maximum speed of 80 knots (92 mph), and a range of about 80 miles. While it usually operated close to sea level, it had a ceiling of 16,400 ft. In its fully operational mode, it could be flown from a destroyer up to 22 miles without providing any warning to a submarine, until it dropped its torpedo into the water.
By comparison, the MQ-9 Reaper, pictured at the top of this post, has a top speed of 300 mph, a range of over 1,100 miles, and weighs in at 4,900 ponds.
The DASH Drone had two controllers:
- A “small” one for takeoff and landings that was used on the flight deck. (See photo above left.) This is not a handheld control with a joystick, but attached to the structure on the fantail of a destroyer. The circle in the center is not a screen, but a compass
- The larger controller was housed in the ship’s combat information center (CIC). It would fly the drone to the target location and release weapons using semi-automated controls, directed by the ship’s radar. The CIC had no windows, so the pilot could not actually see the drone or even how high it was. Sometimes, this had bad results for the drone. The CIC controller was, not surprising, an early 1960’s era computer, probably with tubes. That era computers were not known to be overly reliable.
Remote control communications were via multi-channel analog FM, so these communications were strictly “line of sight.” If the shipboard transmitter did not have a clear line to the drone, it could not control it. Darkness and fog did not impact its communication, but the curvature of the earth and its needs to operate close to sea level restricted its range.
The manufacturer, Gryodyne, had created a very small single-seat helicopter for the U.S. Navy in the mid 1950s. This “Rotocycle” won the prize for the most maneuverable helicopter at the 1961 Paris Air Show. Again under contract with the U.S. Navy, Gryodyne removed the pilot seat and manual controls to create the DASH Drone.
The last word:
If you would like to see one and are in the Philadelphia, PA, area, check out the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association Wings of Freedom Museum near the old Willow Grove Naval Air Station. This museum has a number of interesting military aircraft, including a QH-50C DASH Drone with both controllers. Come check them out, and maybe help them move to a bigger facility that will allow all of their aircraft to be indoors.
Keep your sense of humor.