NRL Makes The Electric Dog…90 YEARS Ago

The Naval Research Laboratory  turned 89 this year, but its first unmanned system got its start  90 years ago.

Long before K-9 ever met Sarah Jane Smith, this guy was roaming the streets.

In 1922, at the Anacostia Naval Aircraft Radio Laboratory, engineer  Carlos B. Mirick was developing a system for radio remote control  of aircraft.

When NRL opened in 1923, Mirick and the others at  Anacostia transferred to become  part of the new NRL Radio Division.  Mirick continued his work and built  the “electric dog” unmanned  ground vehicle to test his remote-control system.

A. Hoyt Taylor, who had been head of the  Anacostia laboratory and became the first  superintendent of the NRL Radio Division, recalled, “In 1922 Mr. C. B. Mirick started work on pilotless target planes, known as ‘drones’. To those who know anything about honey bees, the significance of the term will be clear. The drone has one happy flight and then dies.  I believe I am responsible for this name for pilotless target planes.”

“The work on radio controlled pilotless airplanes [that] started at Anacostia was continued, under Mr. C. B. Mirick, at the Naval Research Laboratory. In the winter of 1923-1924, Mirick tested his various radio control devices by the use of a small three-wheeled cart which came to be dubbed the ‘electric dog’.”

Mirick described his vehicle in a 1946 article: “The front wheel of this cart was improvised from a small boy’s velocipede and still retained pedals which gave the contraption a somewhat jaunty air. Within the past year pictures of this equipment have been broken out and Mr. Robert E. Luke, son of Lieutenant Commander E. L. Luke, and now a radio engineer at the NRL, remarked rather bitterly, ‘Yes, that was my velocipede.’ The cart was driven by small series motors supplied from a storage battery.

It is of possible interest that the control switch for operating this device consisted of a small vertical stick similar in action to the control stick of an airplane. The four circuits controlling the cart were connected for forward, reverse, right turn, and left turn. In principle, this control stick was almost identical with that employed in recent German radio-controlled missiles.

At intervals during this winter, the ‘dog’ wandered slowly and somewhat uncertainly about in driveways at the Naval Research Laboratory but it did demonstrate a successful simultaneous and independent operation of control circuits.”

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In March 2012, NRL opened its new Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research.

This Laboratory provides specialized facilities to support highly innovative research in autonomous systems, including intelligent autonomy, sensor systems, power and energy systems, human-system interaction, networking and communications, and platforms. The Laboratory capitalizes on the broad multidisciplinary character of NRL, bringing together scientists and engineers with disparate training and backgrounds to tackle common goals in autonomy research at the intersection of their respective fields. 

For more information, read this timeline of NRL’s research in unmanned and autonomous systems from 1923 to 2012.


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