With the true nature of modern surveillance pigeons coming to light, the ancestors of bird surveillance existed long before biotechnology gave us the ability to control these creatures.
Over 100 years ago, a German pharmacist by the name of Julius Neubronner devised a way to deliver emergency prescriptions via carrier pigeon. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, after one of his birds went missing but a month later returned he wondered how he could track their flights. His solution was charmingly simple and it changed aerial surveillance forever.
Neubronner strapped cameras to his pigeons.
Clearly his talents went far beyond the pharmacy. Camera technology was obviously not what it is today but his pigeons successfully took flight, wearing a specially adapted rig that would snap a series of photos on a timer. Not only did this allow Neubronner to track the flight path of his surveillance pigeons but in 1903 these are the first aerial photographs ever taken by an animal.
Now Julius was probably having a brilliant time distributing drugs by pigeon and pioneering aerial surveillance but this story takes a darker turn. In 1907 Neubronner applied for a patent for his pigeon surveillance methods which was rejected by the authorities as “impossible”. However, a year later he had collected enough proof and the patent was granted in December 1908.
The government was now aware of this technology and right around the corner was World War 1. What was more discrete as a spy drone than a pigeon with a camera? Nothing. Throughout both World War’s pigeons were sent on reconnaissance missions and the technology continually improved.
In the following years, Neubronner made major advances, in both his pigeon camera harness and the capability of these cameras to take higher quality photographs, examples of which below. Now the story dries up, until, the CIA picked up the technology in 1970 who state “Being a common species, the pigeon concealed its role as an intelligence collection platform among the activities of thousands of other birds.”
By the 1970’s the CIA had the technology to reinvent the pigeon camera, pictured below, however “details of pigeon missions are still classified”. It is however known the CIA could take detailed images of very targeted areas.
Since the initial classification of these government surveillance activities, technology has improved drastically. Biotechnology in pigeons allows advanced control and wireless transfer of data in high definition. The modern pigeon drone has come a long way. One way or another, surveillance pigeons are nothing new. The routes are easily traced to Neubronner’s patent in 1908 and somehow still, the modern public is largely unaware of these spybots in our everyday lives.