Nikola Tesla’s Drone Patent…From 1898

Nikola Tesla Patent For Unmanned Vehicle Control

Drones, before there were drones.

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Nikola Tesla, the inventor, electric car company namesake, and beloved darling of the internet, had a great many visions in his mind. Among the more obscure: a patent for killer robots. And not just killer robots, but killer robots he thought were so deadly that the mere risk of their use would bring about peace.

As spotted by technologist Matthew Schroyer:

The patent, for “Method of and apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles,” was granted November 8th, 1898. For a device like this to work, it needed to be wireless, and Tesla envisioned it powered by electrical waves. From the patent:

In a broad sense, then, my invention differs from all of those systems which provide for the control of the mechanism carried by a moving object and governing its motion in that I require no intermediate wires, cables, or other form of electrical or mechanical connection with the object save the natural modia in space. I accomplish, nevertheless, similar results and in a much more practicable manner by producing waves, impulses, or radiations which are received through the earth, water, or atmosphere by suitable apparatus‘ on the moving body and cause the desired actions so long as the body remains within the active region or effective range of such on currents, waves, impulses, or radiations.

Radio waves, while not mentioned by name, were discovered in the 19th century, and would go on to shape the entire world of unmanned machines. Tesla was right about what it would take to steer his robots, though wrong on their destructive potential.

The first drone built for war, or at least one of the closest predecessors, was the Kettering Bug. Instead of using remote control, it was pre-programmed to fly a certain distance (it is also the ancestor of modern cruise missiles). Built for World War I, the bug was completed too late to see action, which is just as well, since in tests it was unreliable at best.

It would take another century for armed, remotely controlled machines tocome into their own, and while much has been written about how drones will change war, it’s a much older, much more destructive technology that scared superpowers out of fighting each other: the atomic bomb, a grim child of Oppenheimer, not Tesla.

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