Project Pigeon

24 Jan

The V-2 rocket was one of the great advantages of the Axis during World War II. It could hit precise targets from hundreds of miles away. But it’s precision depended on known variables and careful calculation. A mathematical error could result in a total botch. Computers were not yet anywhere near sophisticated enough to guide the rocket like they do today. For the Axis, rocket science came down to simple physics, slide rules, and math.

The Allies, however, attempted different ways to ensure precision. B. F. Skinner, the behavioral researcher who pioneered operant conditioning, proposed using trained pigeons to guide the missles in an idea called Project Orcon. The pigeons would be pre-trained to peck at pictures of the chosen target. When they hit the photograph directly, they’d get a treat. When they missed, they’d get nothing. Eventually, they became so good at their job that they’d be able to follow the target even when it moved, pecking furiously all the while.

Then, properly trained, three of the pigeons would be stuffed into the nose of a rocket and dropped from a plane. The nose of the rocket would be fitted with a transparent screen equipped with sensors and the pigeons, still expecting treats, would immediately start pecking at the (now real) target. The sensors could then be used to automatically change the missle’s course, depending on where on the glass the birds hit. Presto chango, a makeshift automatic targeting system. A video can be seen here.

This kills the pigeon

Initially funded $25,000, the military eventually decided the idea was simply too impractical to actually be of use and scrapped the whole thing.

Sources: Wikipedia, HistoryWired,, DieselPunks

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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized


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