The US Central Intelligence Agency has declassified and published documents on the Aquiline project, which was being developed in the 1960s.
During the Aquiline project, it was planned to create reconnaissance drones based initially on the study of flight characteristics of birds and supplied with a nuclear energy source. The drone with ten-foot wingspan was supposed to carry a variety of payloads, photographic and infra-red cameras, radar emissions, radio equipment, and more.
At the same time, in appearance, the drone was supposed to resemble a soaring bird – it was assumed that the sight of a single vulture would not arouse suspicion, and the device would be able to study strategic objects for a long time. Also, before the US launched the NAVSTAR (GPS) system, drones did not have easy ways to navigate.
“It is small, flies low and slow, having small visual, acoustic, and radar observables; can outfox defenses rather than overpower them,” according to a 1968 CIA briefing included in the latest release. The hardware was built by McDonnell Douglas, with at least four drones being built without a nuclear installation, and tested.
Being inexpensive, inoffensive, and unmanned, Aquiline was considered as more politically palatable for use compared to overflight aircraft and large drones. The drone was envisioned as a long-range vehicle that could safely and stealthily fly thousands of miles into denied areas such as the Soviet Union, Red China, Cuba, etc., to collect critical technical intelligence, support in-place agents, or perform other such CIA missions.
The technical specifications of the Aquiline spy drone are not included in the documents supplied. However, one of the documents indicates that the drone would carry out operations at ranges of up to 1200 miles.
The concept was taken into consideration after the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, manned flights were becoming politically too risky. It is noted that the project was not implemented, primarily due to the high price and complexity, but the CIA notes in a preface to the news release that “the concept proved invaluable as a forerunner to today’s multi-capability UAVs.”