This 1924 Illustration Predicts the Real Future of Drone Warfare

By Matt Novak on at

It's no secret that military drones predate the 21st century. But it's still amazing to see illustrations of unmanned aerial vehicles that are nearly a century old. Like this drone command center from 1924, with pilots sitting 500 miles away from the battlefield. It's an image that's strikingly similar to the drone pilots of today.

This 1924 Illustration Nails the Real Future of Drone Warfare

The March-April 1931 issue of Television News magazine (edited by sci-fi legend and publisher Hugo Gernsback) featured this illustration, showing the unmanned battles of tomorrow. The "electric eyes" equipped on the planes of the future would give military personnel a tremendous advantage, without putting your own humans in harm's way.

The article actually dates back to 1924 and first appeared in Gernsback's The Experimenter magazine. But it was republished in 1931 in Television News because Gernsback felt that it was even more relevant to the future of warfare seven years later.

"The pilot-less radio television plane, directed by radio; the plane's 'eyes' radio back what they see," the caption reads.

This 1924 Illustration Nails the Real Future of Drone Warfare

From the March-April 1931 issue of Television News:

The airplane is started from the ground and is sent over the enemy territory. During every second of its flight the control operator, although 50, 100 or possibly 500 miles away, will see exactly what goes on around the plane, just the same as if he himself were seated in the cockpit; with the further advantage that, sitting before a screen, he can scan six directions all at once, which no human aviator can do. If, for instance, an enemy airplane suddenly comes out of a cloud and starts dropping bombs on our machine below, the control operator sees this enemy machine quicker 500 miles away, than if an aviator sat in the cockpit one-quarter of a mile away from or below the enemy bomber. The control operator will send a radio signal that will immediately discharge a smoke screen from his radio television plane, hiding his craft in smoke.

Once it found its target, the drone could drop bombs on wherever the operator chose. In fact, assuming that the plane had a futuristic sighting device, the dropping of the bombs could even be automated.

If he outdistances, or otherwise eludes the enemy, the radio-controlled television airplane can then be directed to the spot where it is supposed to drop its bombs. Moreover, the distant-control operator can see exactly when his machine arrives over a given spot. A sighting arrangement can be attached to the plane in such a manner that, when the object to be bombed comes over the cross-wires in the range-finder, the bomb or bombs are dropped at the exact moment.

The drones were imagined to have a self-destruct feature as well, should things look too dire for the unmanned aerial vehicle that happens to be surrounded by enemies.

Suppose that the enemy becomes too strong and that a great number of machines attack the radio-controlled plane and that there is no escape from the enemy. In that case the control operator will simply set the radio television plane on fire, bringing it down in flames! Thus it would be useless to the enemy and no lives will have been risked or taken — it being cheaper to destroy a machine than the valuable life of a highly trained pilot.

Gernsback's article even imagined that entire squadrons of drones would be deployed:

In the future such radio-controlled television planes may be used not only singly but in squadrons as well. They can be used for attacking the enemy if necessary. They can be used in pursuit of the enemy, for taking aerial photographs, and for any other military or peace-time operation, just the same as a present-day plane piloted by an aviator. Suppose the enemy has the same kind of machines, which, of course, he will have. It then becomes a matter of "playing chess," the same as if the machines contained the aviators. The battle, of course, would not be bloody, but practically the same results will be achieved as far as the maneuver is concerned.

It really is amazing to read about early 20th century visions for robotic war. Many futurist thinkers, like Gernsback, had a strange sense of optimism about unmanned war machines; this belief that if two warring sides had unmanned fighters, no human lives would be lost. Gernsback even compares it to a simple game of chess. Sadly, we have yet to move into the zero-casualty robo-war utopia imagined by men like Gernsback.

But Gernsback didn't think unmanned aerial vehicles were just for war. He saw that they could even be used during peacetime — like for delivering mail.

For peace-time purposes it goes without saying that the advantages of such a mechanical and "almost human" airplane are unlimited. It will be possible in the future to send mail planes from one end of the country to the other without a human being on board and such planes will be just as safe as letter-carriers, as if they were manned by human beings. Every second of the flight would be watched by a Post Office Department operator and the plane would, of course, be able to defend itself against attack. It could readily be equipped with electrically-operated guns if such should be necessary or desirable.

We're now grappling with many aspects of Gernsback's drone-centric future — both in war and peace. But something tells me that even if the postal service fully embraces unmanned aerial vehicles, they won't be equipped with guns. Who knows though? I guess I shouldn't bet against Gernsback, given his amazing track record for prediction thus far.

Images: March-April 1931 issue of Television News