Why you should care

Fifty years ago, drones were glorified model airplanes with lawnmower engines. Here’s how John Stuart Foster Jr. helped them become much, much more.

It seem like drones are everywhere these days, from their controversial deployment as a weapon of war to more benign uses as search-and-rescue tools or even videotaping luxury real estate. Soon, we may see them hurtling through the air delivering everything from books to boots, if Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his way.

Less than 50 years ago, drones were nothing more than a Star Trek plot and a few lawnmower engines. It was the experiments of one man, John Stuart Foster Jr., that changed all that.

In 1965, the Connecticut-born Foster Jr. became the U.S. Department of Defense’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering — in layman’s terms, the top Pentagon weapons researcher. Foster Jr. was the son of a top physicist following in his father’s footsteps, with flying colors. He had a keen eye for the changing nature of warfare that has extended into the present day.

Black and white image of John sitting on edge of desk speaking, looking towards camera with US Govt Logo on wall behind him

King of the Drones

Source Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty

Clearly, Foster’s phasers weren’t just on stun. At the time of his appointment, an American science periodical noted that Foster Jr. came from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California, a nuclear physics research center with an already-notorious name. “Livermore men have generally been noted for an exuberant, enterprising spirit,” the publication declared, “particularly in the case of Foster, for a relative freedom from the kinds of moral uncertainties about weapons development that have characterized older generations of atomic scientists.”

In addition to his devil-may-care reputation, the Pentagon’s new kid on the block had a hobby: building and flying model airplanes. In 1971, he experimented with using converted lawnmower engines to fly airplane-like machines with cameras or bombs strapped to their bellies.

Foster [has] a relative freedom from the kinds of moral uncertainties about weapons development that have characterized older generations of atomic scientists.

Announcement of his appointment to the Pentagon

Two years later, two prototypes – Praeire and Calere, the world’s first military drones – had their maiden flights as part of an official U.S. government project. These lawnmower-engine-powered machines weighed 75 pounds each, not including their 28-pound test “bombs,” and flew for two hours.

In a 1991 interview, Foster cited his work on the “ballistic missile defence program,” which included drones, as one of his greatest achievements. But his understanding of his invention seems rooted in a Cold War point of view, unable to imagine the potential civilian uses flourishing today. His work with drones, he claimed, deterred Soviet submarines, improved satellite navigation and helped advance the GPS revolution.

What other possible use might drones have? “Finding targets in the foliage,” Foster suggested vaguely.

Foster continued to work for the Department of Defense under Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, and in civilian life consulted several major arms companies like Northrop Grumman. After 9/11, he chaired a Republican-led congressional panel advocating dramatic increases in military spending and accelerated nuclear tests. He is now retired.

In 2002, the CIA first used a Predator drone – the direct descendant of Foster’s Praeire and Calere – in a targeted strike. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drones were responsible for 380 airstrikes in Pakistan during the past nine years, killing an estimated 2,534 to 3,642 people; 416 to 951 of them civilians. While their use has been controversial, advocates argue drones are efficient and reduce threats to U.S. forces.

Amazon drone pictured at landing spot

Amazon Drone

Foster Jr.’s defense projects are hardly Cold War relics — but they’re not exactly James Bond’s latest military gadget, either. Instead, there’s been a big boom in the civilian market for flying machines. Cousins of the Predator drone take nature photographs, help farmers track their crop growth and oversee construction sites. In the next few years, the sky could be crowded with drones making movies, creating jobs in the aerospace industry and delivering your Amazon order. This time, they may be carrying cameras, just not in the way Foster originally envisioned.

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