Project Pigeon: When Birds Became the Brain of Guided Missiles

Revisit the captivating history of Project Pigeon, a real-life experiment that sought to combine psychology, technology, and the natural instincts of animals to guide missiles during WWII

Project Pigeon: When Birds Became the Brain of Guided Missiles

Wednesday July 26, 2023,

2 min Read

Ever thought of pigeons as more than just city birds? Well, during World War II, the US military saw potential in these birds and funded a project known as Project Pigeon. Its aim? To train pigeons to guide missiles. Although this might sound like science fiction, the idea came from B.F. Skinner, a respected psychologist and behaviorist.

The Birth of Project Pigeon

Amidst the turbulence of World War II, Skinner proposed a plan to the American military that would use pigeons to control bombs. Famous for his work in operant conditioning, a method that modifies behavior using rewards or punishments, Skinner believed that he could train pigeons to peck at a target, and in doing so, guide a missile's course.

The Pigeon-guided Missile System

Inside the nose of a missile, a pigeon was placed in a small compartment with a screen showing the target. If the missile was on course, the pigeon would peck the center of the screen. However, if the missile drifted off course, the image would shift, and the pigeon would peck on the sides. These off-center pecks would then correct the missile's course.

Challenges and Closure

Despite receiving military funding from 1944 to 1945, Project Pigeon faced hurdles. Critics raised doubts about practical limitations, like controlling pigeons in combat and the extensive training required for each bird. The project was cancelled due to the advent of electronic guidance systems, which were more efficient and practical. While it was briefly revived as Project Orcon during the Korean War, it was eventually discontinued in 1953.

The Impact of Project Pigeon

Though it never materialized into a combat-ready system, Project Pigeon demonstrated the breadth of human creativity and innovation. It stands as a remarkable experiment that sought to combine psychology, technology, and the natural instincts of animals. While Skinner's pigeon-guided missile system didn't make it to the battlefield, it remains a compelling tale of unconventional problem-solving and the spirit of scientific curiosity.