Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fairey Queen & Robot Seaplanes

RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles) date back to just a few years after the Wright brothers first took to the air. The brilliant but easily distracted inventor Professor A.M. Low was set the task early in the first world war of producing remotely controlled pilotless aircraft. These were the first guided missiles. Early RPVs were also used as aerial targets.

As the war progressed both the British and Americans developed more RPVs again mostly flying bombs and targets. These did tend to be specially built small aircraft. Control was either using radio or the RPV could have it's flight preset especially in the case of early "aerial torpedos". The launch crew had to estimate the distance to the target and then set the RPV off in the correct direction. Gyroscopes aboard kept the aircraft in the right direction and barometer the altitude. Once the RPV had traveled the correct distance (and so was over the target) the engine stopped and explosive bolts detached the wings so dropping the fuselage and explosives on the target.

However early flying bombs were not very reliable, many veered off course and were never seen again. More luck was had with aerial targets. One of which gave the Royal Navy a wakeup call as to the vulnerability of their ships to aerial attack. In the early 1920s tests led by the American General "Billy" Mitchell had showed that warships could be sunk by bombers. However his tests had been against withdrawn old warships without crews. In response to the tests the Royal Navy said that the bombers had not destroyed crewed warships that could move and shoot back!

An ex-German battleship is hit during Mitchell's anti-ship bombing demonstration in 1921

Therefore to settle the argument the Fairey Queen target drone was created, the first in a long line of full-scale pilotless drone aircraft. The Queen was a modified Fairey IIIF floatplane, a catapult launched aircraft which was used for reconnaissance by the Royal Navy, 3 being converted to Queens. Apart from installing radio gear the Queen also had some aerodynamic modifications to improve stability, however the first couple of pilotless flights came to quick inglorious endings as the drones crashed as soon as they left the catapult launcher on a RN warship (the HMS Valient).

Fairey IIIF floatplane

However once the last remaining Queen could get properly airborne it proved it's use in a test in January 1933. For two hours it flew over RN warships and survived their concentrated firepower! On a later test RN gunners did finally shoot down the Fairey Queen but by then the lesson had (hopefully) been learned! No more Fairey Queens existed but later on in the decade a remote controlled version of the Tiger Moth, the Queen Bee, was built in large numbers and could be seen on many a gunnery range both at sea or over land.

Whether the term "drone" for RPVs came about because of the name "Queen Bee" and it's connection to drone bees is unknown but it is a distinct possibility.

Nowadays there are a few projects to create a drone that can take off and land in water. Warrior Aero-Marine have begun flying their GULL 24 and 36 seaplane UAVs. The GULL 36, which is now the focus of trials, is an 4m wingspan craft has begun trials in the English Channel. The UAV has a new patented stepless seaplane hull which Warrior say improves performance and it helps the plane to handle waves twice as high as conventional seaplanes. The hull is also better at piercing waves allowing for higher taxi speeds and better surface performance.

The GULL series is designed to help users avoid awkwardness of VTOL and ramp launched systems and can be fitted with landing gear for full amphibious operation.

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