Before There Were Drones: Using Pigeons for Aerial Photography

Caitlin Dempsey


Nowadays, some birds are trained to take down pesky drones.  Back before drones became a cheap and easy way to acquire aerial imagery, a German inventor proposed using pigeons to capture photographs of the earth from above.

Neubronner carried on his father’s practice which was started back in 1840 in the German town of Kronberg.    His father started the practice of using homing pigeons to coordinate prescriptions with local doctors and clinics in order to expedite the delivery of medications.  Neubronner came up with the idea of using aerial imagery to track his homing pigeons’ travels after one became lost and went missing for a month.

Julius Neubronner holding a homing pigeon and one of his cameras, 1914.
Julius Neubronner holding a homing pigeon and one of his cameras, 1914.

Curious to see where his pigeons were flying, he devised a way to capture pictures of their flight path.  In the early 1900s Julius Neubronner developed an aluminum breast harness to which a lightweight camera was attached.  The camera was equipped with a timer that would take a picture every thirty seconds.  This contraption was attached to a homing pigeon in order to capture aerial photographs.

Homing pigeons strapped with Neubronner's cameras.
Homing pigeons strapped with Neubronner’s cameras.

In 1907 Neubronner submitted a patent application for his invention.

Neubronner's 1907 patent diagrams for his pigeon camera harness.
Neubronner’s 1907 patent diagrams for his pigeon camera harness.

Neubronner traveled in 1909 to the Dresden International Photographic Exhibition where he showed off his invention and sold postcards of aerial photographs captured by his homing pigeons. While aerial photographs taken from balloons and kites had been taken some 20-30 years earlier, the perspective of seeing the landscape from above was still a novel and exciting view for most people.  The unreliability of flight paths and quality of the aerial photographs compared to  made the pigeon aerial invention a short-lived strategy.

Watch: Bird’s Eye View: Aerial Imagery with Pigeons

Article: The Pigeon Spy and His Work in War

From: Popular Science Monthly, Volume 88, 1872, pp. 30-31


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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