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An American ground crew readies an RQ-1 Predator drone for a mission over Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

‘While science fiction directly inspired many of the weapons we now use, military robotics actually has a lengthy history’

The thousands of unmanned aerial systems in today’s U.S. military inventory are high-tech reconnaissance and attack platforms that undertake missions too long or too dangerous for human pilots. Though these systems have revolutionized combat in the 21st century, they share a strange but true Hollywood heritage.

World War I British flyer Reginald Denny became a postwar stunt pilot and then moved to Hollywood to work as an actor. Denny appeared in more than 100 movies, and while horsing around on various film sets, he became a hobbyist of radio-controlled model airplanes. In 1934 he opened the Reginald Denny Hobby Shops on Hollywood Boulevard. As World War II loomed, Denny thought his radio-controlled planes would make perfect target drones for anti-aircraft gunners. In the late 1930s he pitched the U.S. Army on his RP-4 Radioplane, the “Dennymite,” powered by a 6-hp engine with a 12-foot, 3-inch wingspan. In 1940 the Army ordered 53 of the RP-4, redesignating it the OQ-1. A few months later the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war created an urgent need for anti-aircraft gunners—and target drones. During the war the U.S. military bought nearly 15,000 Dennymites, making the type the first mass-produced unmanned plane in history.

While science fiction directly inspired many of the weapons we now use, military robotics actually has a lengthy history. Attempts to build lifelike machines stretch back to ancient Greek mathematician and scientist Archytas of Tarentum (400–350 BC), who built a steam-propelled mechanical dove. The first real advances in what we now call “military robotics” started with Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), the pioneer electrical engineer and rival of Thomas Edison.

In 1898 Tesla demonstrated a radio-controlled motorboat to a government representative, suggesting the potential military application of his technology. But the man burst out laughing at the very idea of such weapons being either useful or even viable. Tesla would not be the last inventor to learn that what was technically possible often mattered less than whether it was bureaucratically imaginable.

Tesla’s peers laid the foundations for unmanned vehicles and weapons as World War I began. When the war devolved into a trench-warfare stalemate, remote-controlled vehicles gained appeal as a means to break the deadlock: Land-based devices included the electric dog, a three-wheeled supply cart designed to follow the lamp of its controller; more deadly was the land torpedo, an armored tractor meant to trundle 1,000 pounds of explosives into enemy trenches. In the air the first of what we now call cruise missiles was the Kettering Bug, a tiny airplane that used a barometer/altimeter, a mechanical counter and a preset gyroscope to fly on course and then crash into a target. The war ended before it could be used in combat.

The only system operationally deployed during World War I was Germany’s FL-7 wire-guided motorboat. Designed to be rammed into enemy ships, it carried 300 pounds of explosives. FL-7 drivers initially sat ashore atop 50-foot towers, later aboard seaplanes. Both methods proved unwieldy, however, so in 1916 the Germans put Tesla’s wireless radio-control system into service. In October 1917, off the coast of German-occupied Belgium, an FL-7 struck and damaged HMS Erebus, a British monitor that had been bombarding German naval bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge.

In World War II Germany again proved more inclined than its enemies to develop and use unmanned systems. The vehicle that saw most use was the Goliath tracked mine, which carried 100 pounds of explosives. Designed to be steered into enemy tanks and bunkers, it was about the size of a small go-cart, powered at first by electric motors and later by 12.5-hp gasoline engines. The Germans built some 7,000 Goliaths, using them on the Eastern Front, at Normandy and during the Warsaw Uprising. Its effectiveness was limited, however, by its low speed, poor ground clearance and vulnerability to small-arms fire.

The Germans were equally revolutionary in the air, deploying the first workable cruise missile (the V-1) and ballistic missile (V-2). They were also the first to deploy remotely piloted—as opposed to preprogrammed—aerial drones. The FX 1400 “Fritz” was a 3,000-pound (1,400-kg) glide bomb with a 700-pound warhead, four small wings, controllable tail surfaces and a rocket motor. The Germans would drop the device at high altitude from a Dornier Do 217 bomber. A bombardier would then steer the Fritz via radio link using a joystick. In September 1943 a fleet of Fritz-carrying Do 217s attacked an Italian naval fleet defecting to the Allies near Sardinia. One bomb damaged the battleship Italia. Two others hit the battleship Roma, which broke in two and sank in minutes, taking more than 1,200 crewmen to their deaths. Germany built about 2,000 of these remote-controlled bombs, though by that stage of the war Allied air superiority generally negated the threat.

In 1944 the United States’ focus on aerial weapons led the U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Navy to launch Operations Aphrodite and Anvil, respectively. The idea was to strip heavy bombers of all unnecessary equipment, then pack them with 10 tons of Torpex, an explosive more powerful than TNT. A crew would get the plane in the air, arm the explosives and then bail out. A nearby mother ship would then take radio remote control and, using television cameras mounted in the drone’s cockpit, steer the plane into targets too well protected for manned bombers to risk approaching.

On Aug. 12, 1944, the Navy sent a converted B-24 Liberator from England to take out a suspected German supergun in northern France that supposedly could hit London, more than 100 miles away. But the volatile Torpex detonated prematurely, vaporizing the Liberator and killing its crew, pilot Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy and co-pilot Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Kennedy’s younger brother, John, would inherit the family’s hopes, while the Army and Navy terminated the operations.

Aphrodite and Anvil weren’t the only Allied remote-control weapon programs. Starting in early 1944 American B-24s dropped more than 450 Army-developed VB-1 Azons—1,000 pound radio remote-control glide bombs steered visually by bombardiers—over the Pacific and Burma.

The evolution of remotely operated weapons, including aircraft, slowed considerably in the immediate postwar years. The newly independent U.S. Air Force particularly frowned upon unmanned aircraft as a professional threat. Indeed, the Pentagon initially left further development of such systems to the Army and Navy.

Unmanned systems improved in the decades following World War II, though the only substantial military contract awarded in this period was to Ryan Aeronautical in 1962 to manufacture an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. The resultant air-launched, jet-powered drone, the Model 147 Lightning Bug, and its many high- and low-altitude variations, flew 3,435 missions (photo reconnaissance, decoy, chaff dispensing, radar-jamming and propaganda drops) over Southeast Asia from 1962 to 1975. Overall, though, the Vietnam experience was as bad for robotics as it was for the broader American military. The uses of such unmanned systems were mostly classified, so there was little public knowledge of their relative successes and little impetus to solve the problems encountered.

The next major U.S. military contract toward unmanned aircraft came in 1979 with the Lockheed MGM-105 Aquila program. The Army intended for the Aquila to be a small, propeller-powered drone that could circle over the front lines and send back information on the enemy’s numbers and intentions. But the Army began to load up the plane with all sorts of new requirements, which made the aircraft heavier, more costly and more vulnerable. By 1987 the program that originally budgeted $560 million for 780 Aquila drones had spent more than $1 billion for just a few prototypes. The Aquila was canceled and the cause of unmanned vehicles set further back, again more by policy decisions than by the technology itself.

While the United States used such smart weapons as precision-guided bombs with great success in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, unmanned systems didn’t play a major role. The only true success story in the conflict was the Navy’s use of the Israeli-developed Pioneer drone, an unmanned plane similar to the Aquila. The Navy used the UAV to pinpoint targets for the 16-inch guns of its World War II–era battleships. During one mission a Pioneer overflew a group of Iraqi soldiers, who, rather than waiting to be hit by a 2,000-pound high explosive shell, waved white sheets and undershirts at the drone—the first time in history that human soldiers surrendered to an unmanned system.

While unmanned aircraft accelerated in capability during the early 1990s, the 1995 integration of the Global Positioning System marked what one U.S. Air Force officer called a “magic moment” in UAV history. Military operators could now dispatch GPS-equipped UAVs anywhere in the world and undertake reconnaissance and targeting missions with extreme precision. Such systems were far more intuitive to operate, while the real-time information they provided was more detailed and useful. Newly capable systems such as the General Atomics RQ-1 Predator and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk made their combat debuts in NATO air operations against Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo Conflict, gathering timely information on everything from air defenses to refugee movements.

By the start of the 21st century the technology had matured, each year getting more effective and easier to use. Moreover, unmanned systems were garnering a portfolio of success stories that proved their value. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the amount spent on ground robots has roughly doubled each year, while the amount spent on aerial systems has grown by around 23 percent annually.

As U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, they faced enemies that not only tried to hide among the civilian populace, but also used such indirect methods of attack as improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such scenarios are tailor-made for UAVs, which can linger over a site to investigate potential threats, thus keeping soldiers from harm.

With each life saved and each new use found for them in combat, acceptance of and demand for the unmanned systems has grown. Indeed, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were so pleased with prototypes of the tactical PackBot—used to locate and dispose of IEDs—that they refused to return them when the 2001 field test ended. Manufacturer iRobot has since sold more than 2,500 of the devices to the military.

The U.S. military inventory now comprises more than 12,000 ground robots and 7,000 UAVs. The robot of science fiction is thus now a very real part of war, one spreading globally. In addition to the United States, 44 other countries are now pursuing unmanned military systems. It’s not that the human role is disappearing from war. War remains a human endeavor, driven by our flaws and reflecting our best and worst traits. Rather, what’s happening now is akin to the first use of gunpowder, airplanes or armored vehicles: A technology that started out as abnormal and limited in use and acceptance is revolutionizing the tools we use to fight and rapidly becoming an everyday aspect of 21st century military operations.

For further reading P.W. Singer recommends his own Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century and Max Boot’s War Made New.