The Birth of Drones: Radio Controlled War Machines of Antiquity

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The very first demonstration of radio control took place in 1898 at Madison Square Garden by none other than Nikola Tesla. Some present were so astonished, they insisted it was some form of sorcery.

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The boat was powered by a lead acid storage battery with two lights for night time use, a tall antennae, an electric motor and actuated rudder. Modern RC boats don’t differ much except with regards to the battery technology in use today.

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The strongest initial interest was military. The potential for radio controlled fighting machines, to keep US soldiers out of harm’s way, was obvious to Uncle Sam. It wouldn’t take long for this concept to proliferate.

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Goliath tracked mines were used in World War 2 by the Germans as tank killers. They were controller over long wires to prevent signal jamming. There was an electrically powered one, and a gas powered alternate version.

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Recovering unexploded Goliath mines in the aftermath of WW2 advaned the American understanding of what might be considered early battlefield robotics. The Soviets had their own ideas for future use of remotely controlled ground vehicles, however…

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The Soviet ‘teletank’ was the first example in history of a full size unmanned fighting machine. A number of teletanks could be operated from a single “control tank” hanging back out of harm’s way. Their solution to signal jamming? If they lost control of a teletank, they were under orders to fire upon it from the control tank until it was destroyed.

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The desire to field teletanks in order to limit loss of life is surprising coming from the Soviets, given that their tank-killing alternative to remotely controlled tracked mines was a simple time delay grenade strapped to a trained dog.

The promise of drones as a means of keeping one’s own skin out of the game drove their continued development all the way to the present day. But their vulnerability to signal jamming and hijacking hasn’t been diminished. As ever, it’s an ongoing arms race between drone developers and their intended targets.

The direction the industry is moving in seems to be away from human control and towards full autonomy. You can’t hijack a drone with no wireless capability, which does all of it’s own thinking. Whether that’s a wise solution remains to be seen.

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