Illustration: Frank Chimero
This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report: Top 11 Technologies of the Decade
Cruising silently overhead, an unmanned Predator aircraft uses its infrared camera to pinpoint the telltale muzzle flashes from a sniper’s rifle. The plane’s operators, located half a world away, then unleash a Hellfire missile from under its wing, using a laser mounted beneath the craft’s nose to guide the munition into the very window the sniper had been shooting from.
Such missions represent a technological tour de force, but they’ve played out so often over the past few years that they no longer make headlines. What might be news, though, is just how far back the roots of this stunning 21st-century military technology reach.
The first demonstration of a remotely piloted vehicle took place in May 1898 at the Electrical Exposition in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It was less than a month after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, which, as history buffs may recall, was sparked by the mysterious explosion and sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor. So when the renowned inventor Nikola Tesla used the exposition to demonstrate his “telautomaton”—a small boat operated remotely by radio—the military significance of his creation must have been obvious.
Or maybe not. Perhaps no one watching Tesla steer and flash the lights of his robotic boat had sufficient imagination to see how valuable pilotless vehicles could be in war. Yet that very year Tesla sent a paper to The Electrical Engineer magazine describing how a remotely controlled aircraft could be used as an aerial torpedo. His submission was rejected as too fanciful.
Attitudes, of course, evolved during the 20th century. As early as 1917, the U.S. Navy pursued the development of a pilotless aircraft for use against German U-boats; during the Second World War, Nazi forces filled the skies over Britain with thousands of pulse-jet-powered flying bombs; and Israeli Defense Forces used drones against Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1982. But it was only during the past decade that unmanned aerial vehicles matured into fully controllable and reusable combat aircraft. They have also proliferated, often in miniaturized forms, providing easily deployed eyes in the sky for ground troops.
The relatively late blossoming of these vehicles can be explained, in part, by improvements in the various technologies they rely on. But an increased understanding of their utility on the battlefield also accounts for the recent upsurge in their use.