United States, 1940. The psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner he had an idea that, read today, might seem like absurd (and maybe it is): use pigeons to guide missiles. But why do something like that? Simple: in those years there were no guided weapons and everything was in the hands of the pilot who, by dropping the bomb, had to hope that he had done the calculations well to hit the right target. Use a trained pigeon it would have instead significantly reduced the margin of error, allowing the weapon to be guided exactly to the desired point – at least according to what Dr. Skinner stated in his Project Pigeon.
But let’s go into more detail and understand not only how this idea was born but also how a pigeon was supposed to guide a missile from a technical point of view.
Spoilers: the project never came into operation and therefore no pigeon ever lost its life.
Who was Burrhus Skinner?
Before going into the details of the project, I think it is right to say a few words to tell you about its inventor, the psychologist Burrhus Skinner. He is one of the fathers of modern behaviorism and in particular he invented the paradigm of “operant conditioning”. Simply put, if a behavior is “rewarded” through reinforcement – for example, if food is given to a pigeon that successfully identifies a target – the animal is conditioned to repeat such behavior; if the behavior is punished, then the animal will be discouraged from repeating it. As we will see, the pigeon-driving-missile experiment is a concrete application of this paradigm.
Pigeon training and testing
The first step of this project involved training pigeons. To do this the birds came harnessed on a special frame and and he was shown photographs of targets from above. Whenever the pigeon hit the target with its beak, it received gods seeds from eat. The point is that the pigeon harness was connected with a hydraulic system which, depending on the movements of the animal’s head, made the frame move in space: for example, if the pigeon pecks to the right, the entire structure moves to the right.
This system is easily applicable to a missile: in this case the pigeon is inserted into a front dome which allows it to see the target to the ground. The pigeon tends to peck at the glass, activating the hydraulic system of the weapon which opens and closes air valves placed on the sides of the missile: the variation in pressure allows for change the trajectory of the weapon, moving it to the right or left depending on the movement of the bird.
Incredibly, all the tests carried out in special training devices between 1941 and 1943 show a very high degree of precisionin addition to the fact that pigeons – once they learn to hit the target – are able to do so without problems even years later.
The pigeon-controlled missile project is abandoned
As interesting a plan as it seemed, the idea it never managed to be approved and the project officially closed its doors in 1944. Warning: it was not a ethical discourse, seeing as it wasn’t that unusual to use animals for these purposes at the time. According to what the creator of the project himself reported, it was more of a prejudice linked to the fact that pigeons were not trusted, considering them unsuitable animals for this purpose – despite the test results. For this reason, no pigeon was ever actually inserted inside a missile, also because the Second World War was underway and the American Department of Defense decided to concentrate its funds on other types of weapons, such as the atomic bomb. In reality, pigeons demonstrate remarkable associative learning abilities.
The positive aspect of the story is that the project will be resumed a few years later in the form of “Orcon project“, this time with pacifist purposes. In fact, the study of pigeons and their way of identifying targets will be important not only for learn more about these animals but also to give life to gods radar more advanced and easily usable by operators. However, the Orcon project was also abandoned in the early 1950s because the first electronic tracking technologies were proving reliable.