Great Moments in Military History: The Pigeon-Guided Missile

Looks like this week is shaping up with an 'Unfortunate Things Done to Animals' theme on Nunc Scio. Yesterday, we had the story of how scientists discovered the world's oldest animal by killing it. Today, we have pigeons-as-missile-guidance-systems. During WWII, weapon designers had a problem. Missile guidance systems were in their infancy, and could easily be jammed by enemy defenses. So they thought to themselves, "what can we use that can't be jammed?" The answer was simple: pigeons. They may be dumb flying rats, but by golly, they can sure fly a missile. And from this totally bizarre premise, Project Orcon (Organic Control) was born. From Wikipedia:

The control system involved a lens at the front of the missile projecting an image of the target to a screen inside, while a pigeon trained (by operant conditioning) to recognize the target pecked at it. As long as the pecks remained in the center of the screen, the missile would fly straight, but pecks off-center would cause the screen to tilt, which would then, via a connection to the missile's flight controls, cause the missile to change course. Three pigeons were to control the bomb's direction by majority rule.

I love that the pigeon-guided missile was a democracy. So progressive, those pigeons.

Democratic pretensions aside, the pigeon missiles never worked very well. The idea was briefly revived in 1948, but again dropped. No word on whether the cancellation was due to unacceptable casualties among old men sitting on park benches and tossing out bread crumbs. I mean, the pigeon is gonna go where it wants to go.

Interestingly, this the world's only experiment with organic control. There was the American Bat Bomb and the horrendous Soviet Anti-Tank Dog. The latter actually saw service in battle, up until the point that a contigent of the explosive-laden canines went nuts, and forced the retreat of an entire Soviet division. I would say something here about teaching old dogs new tricks, but that seems somewhat tasteless.

H/T to for this one.


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