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Photo-reconnaissance Lockheed F-5 Lightning, circa June 1944

Aerial reconnaissance is reconnaissance that is conducted using unmanned aerial vehicles or reconnaissance aircraft.[citation needed] Their roles are to collect imagery intelligence, signals intelligence, and measurement and signature intelligence.


Pre World War I

After the French Revolution, the new rulers became interested in using the balloon to observe enemy manoeuvres and appointed scientist Charles Coutelle to conduct studies using the balloon L'Entreprenant, the first military reconnaissance aircraft. The balloon found its first use in the 1794 conflict with Austria,[citation needed] where in the Battle of Fleurus the gathered information and the demoralizing effect on the Austrian troops ensured victory for the French troops.

After the invention of photography, primitive aerial photographs were made of the ground from manned and unmanned balloons, starting in the 1860s, and from tethered kites from the 1880s onwards.[1] An example was Arthur Batut's kite-borne camera photographs of Labruguière starting from 1889.[2]

In the early 20th century, Julius Neubronner experimented with pigeon photography. The pigeons carried small cameras with timers.[3][4]

Ludwig Rahrmann in 1891 patented a means of attaching a camera to a large calibre artillery projectile or rocket, and this inspired Alfred Maul to develop his Maul Camera Rockets starting in 1903.[5] Alfred Nobel in 1896 had already built the first rocket carrying a camera, which took photographs of the Swedish landscape during its flights.[1][6] Maul improved his camera rockets and the Austrian Army even tested them in the Turkish-Bulgarian War in 1912 and 1913, but by then and from that time on camera-carrying aircraft were found to be superior.[7]

The first use of airplanes in combat missions was by the Italian Air Force during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. On 23 October 1911, an Italian pilot flew over the Turkish lines in Libya to conduct history's first aerial reconnaissance mission, and on 1 November 1911, the first ever aerial bomb was dropped on the Turkish troops in Libya.

On 16 October 1912 a Bulgarian Albatros aircraft was used to perform Europe's first reconnaissance flight in combat conditions,[citation needed] against the Turkish lines on the Balkan peninsula, during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

World War I and II

A B.E.2c reconnaissance aircraft of the RFC with an aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the side of the fuselage, 1916

During World War I, photo-reconnaissance, now called IMINT, was one of the early uses of the aeroplane. Aviators such as Fred Zinn evolved an entire range of new flying and photography techniques to use the new technology in the equally new environment of trench warfare.[citation needed] See special article, Aerial Reconnaissance in World War I.

Aerial photography was also used in cartography and military mapping. Some of the techniques developed for topographic surveying in Alaska were applied to aerial photography when James W. Bagley left the US Geological Survey and joined the US Army Corps of Engineers during World War I.[8]

Before World War II the conventional wisdom was to use converted bomber types for airborne photo-reconnaissance.[citation needed] These bombers retained their defensive armament, which was vital since they were unable to avoid interception. Later it was found that day bombers required a fighter escort.

See also special article, Aerial reconnaissance in World War II.

Aerial reconnaissance photographs of Utah Beach prior to the D-Day landings

In 1939 Sidney Cotton and Flying Officer Maurice Longbottom of the RAF were among the first[citation needed] to suggest that airborne reconnaissance may be a task better suited to fast, small aircraft which would use their speed and high service ceiling to avoid detection and interception. Although this seems obvious now, with modern reconnaissance tasks performed by fast, high flying aircraft, at the time it was radical thinking.[citation needed] They proposed the use of Spitfires with their armament and radios removed and replaced with extra fuel and cameras. This led to the development of the Spitfire PR variants. Spitfires proved to be extremely successful in their reconnaissance role and there were many variants built specifically for that purpose. They served initially with what later became No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU).

During World War II, fighters such as the British Spitfire and Mosquito and the American P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang were adapted for photo-reconnaissance. Such craft were stripped of weaponry, painted in sky camouflage colours to make them difficult to spot in the air, and often had engines modified for higher performance at very high altitudes (well over 40,000 feet). Early in the war the British[citation needed] developed a camera-warming system to allow photographs to be taken at very high altitudes. Based at RAF Medmenham, the collection and interpretation of such photographs became a considerable enterprise. The British, at their peak, flew over 100 reconnaissance flights a day, yielding 50,000 images per day to interpret. Similar efforts were taken by other countries.

The Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-46, a purpose-built twin-engined reconnaissance aircraft armed with only one light gun, entered service in 1941.

The reconnaissance plane that had the earliest and greatest influence for the Americans in WWII was the F-4,[citation needed] a factory modification of the P-38E which replaced the four guns and cannon with four high-quality K-17 cameras. Some 120 F-4 and F-4As were hurriedly made available by March 1942, reaching the 8th Photographic Squadron in Australia by April (the first P-38s to see action). The F-4 had an early advantage of long range and high speed combined with the ability to fly at high altitude; a potent combination for reconnaissance. In the last half of 1942, Lockheed would produce 96 F-5As, based on the P-38G. The Lightning in its reconnaissance role was so well liked by military strategists that hundreds[citation needed] of gun-equipped P-38s were field modified into camera-toting F-5 variants. Later in the war, the Mustang F-6 arrived, eventually becoming the dominant reconnaissance model flown by the US in Europe. US photo-reconnaissance operations in Europe were based at RAF Mount Farm, with the resulting photographs being transferred to Medmenham for interpretation.

However it was the Mosquito that excelled in the photo-reconnaissance role, the converted bomber being given three cameras installed in what had been the bomb bay. The first converted PRU (Photo-Reconnaissance Unit) Mosquito being delivered to RAF Benson in July 1941 by Geoffrey de Havilland himself. Thereafter, the Mosquito was faster than most fighters above 40,000 ft,[citation needed] and could roam almost anywhere. Colonel Roy M. Stanley II, USAF (RET) wrote; "I consider the Mosquito the best photo reconnaissance aircraft of the war".[9] The US designation for the photo-reconnaissance Mosquito was F-8.

Approximately 15,000 Fairchild K-20 aerial cameras were manufactured between 1941 and 1945.[why?]

Cold War

Camera bay of a reconnaissance Mirage III R

Immediately after World War II, long range aerial reconnaissance was taken up by adapted jet bombers – such as the English Electric Canberra, and its American development, the Martin B-57 – capable of flying higher or faster than the enemy. After the Korean War, RB-47 aircraft were used. These were at first converted B-47 jet bombers, but later these were purposely built RB-47 reconnaissance planes. They did not carry any bombs. They had large cameras mounted in the belly of the plane, and with a truncated bomb bay used for carrying photo-flash bombs.

The onset of the Cold War led the development of highly specialized and secretive strategic reconnaissance aircraft, or spy planes, such as the Lockheed U-2 and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird (both from the United States). Flying these aircraft became an exceptionally demanding task, as much because of the aircraft's extreme speed and altitude as it was because of the risk of being captured as spies. As a result, the crews of these aircraft were invariably specially selected and trained.

There are claims that the US constructed a hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft, dubbed the Aurora, in the late 1980s to replace the Blackbird.

Since the early 1960s, in the United States aerial and satellite reconnaissance has been coordinated by the National Reconnaissance Office.

Photo interpretation at the U.S. National Photographic Interpretation Center during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Soviet truck convoy deploying missiles near San Cristobal, Cuba, on Oct. 14, 1962 (taken by a U-2)

A De Havilland Chipmunk as used by BRIXMIS for covert photo-reconnaissance during the Cold War

Modern era

In 2001, in what became known as the Hainan Island incident, a Chinese interceptor collided with a US Navy EP-3 Orion on a signals reconnaissance mission. The crew of the larger US aircraft made an emergency landing. The aircraft and crew were later released by the Chinese authorities.

Modern technology

Drone planes

Miniature UAVs

Due to the low cost of miniature UAVs, this technology brings aerial reconnaissance into the hands of soldiers on the ground. The soldier on the ground can both control the UAV and see its output, yielding great benefit over a disconnected approach. With small systems being man packable, operators are now able to deploy air assets quickly and directly. The low cost and ease of operation of these miniature UAVs has enabled forces such as the Libyan Rebels to use miniature UAVs.[12]

Aeryon Scout VTOL UAV

  • AeroVironment Wasp III (airplane - electric propulsion)
  • Aeryon Scout/Aeryon SkyRanger (VTOL Rotorcraft) - Some UAVs are small enough to carry in a backpack with similar functionality to larger ones
  • EMT Aladin (aircraft - electric - Made in Germany)
  • RQ-84Z Areohawk (aircraft - electric - Made in New Zealand)

Reconnaissance pods

Reconnaissance pods can be carried by fighter-bomber aircraft. Examples include the British DJRP; Chinese KZ900; UK RAPTOR; and US TARPS. Some aircraft made for non-military applications also have reconnaissance pods, i.e. the Qinetiq Mercator

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Nicholas M. Short, Sr.. "History of Remote Sensing: In the Beginning; Launch Vehicles". Archived from the original on 30 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  2. Podolski Consulting (2009). "History of Aerial Photography". Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  3. Nicholas M. Short, Sr.. "Remote Sensing Tutorial Overview". Archived from the original on 26 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-13.  (photographs by Alfred Nobel's rocket and the Bavarian pigeon fleet)
  4. "The History of Aerial Photography". Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  5. Editors of German Wikipedia. [1] Retrieved 2009-03-13
  6. "Cameras in Model Rockets: A Short History". 2007-01-08. Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  7. Mark Wade. "Maul Camera Rocket". Archived from the original on 7 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-13.  (summary and photo)
  8. Bagley, James Warren. 1917. The use of the panoramic camera in topographic surveying: with notes on the application of photogrammetry to aerial surveys. US Geological survey Bulletin #657. Washington: Government Printing Office.
  9. V Weapons Hunt p. 35
  10. Gasparre, Richard (January 25, 2008). "The U.S. and Unmanned Flight: Part 1". Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  11. Fickes, Michael (October 1, 2004). "Automated Eye In The Sky". Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  12. "Aeryon Scout Micro UAV Helps Libyan Rebels in March to Tripoli". 

External links

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