A Bee with an Electronic Brain: Drone Flights in Cold War America

In 1953, a press release by Ryan Aeronautical promoted a previously classified drone with a headline touting the pilotless plane as a “bee with an electronic brain.” Known as the Firebee, the unmanned, jet-powered aircraft trained anti-aircraft gunners in all branches of the U.S. military. Today drones continue to serve as practice targets, even though lethal models deployed by the military dominate the popular imaginary. In the Cold War, however, the bee-like drones generated relatively little public interest; compared with other aerospace developments of the period, including space flight and intercontinental missiles, they seemed unspectacular, innocuous.

I began this photographic project to reflect on tensions between the inoffensive Firebee target plane and the present era of unmanned aircraft. Contemporary drones are omnipresent referents that elucidate how human actions have become increasingly entangled with automated processes and are tied to the specter of machine control. Linking what is human and what is not, unmanned aircraft flown by the United States military refashion the limits of life, death, and vision, as well as the legalities thus entailed. But while drones are ubiquitous, their early history is largely absent. The triptychs in this photo essay, named after the headline from 1953, overlay the two temporalities through documentary materials and staged photographs. The images in each triptych are both a record of a drone project from the Cold War and a fabrication that unsettles futuristic and foreign associations with drone aircraft.

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