When visionary / genius / weirdo Nikola Tesla first described the use of unmanned warfare drones in 1915, no one could have suspected just how instrumental these brave robots would become to modern military strategy. We would like to honor these unsung heroes as part of our celebration of Robot History Month.*
These drones, or “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” were first used in the early 1960’s in connection with an American military program known as “Project Red Wagon.” Robo-historian James Huyck, author of Man and Machine: The Robotic Struggle for Equality, explains, “The United States Air Force was concerned about losing too many good pilots to very dangerous solo or small-force missions over hostile territory. Naturally, they implemented discriminatory policies in order to endanger the more ‘expendable’ robot forces instead.” The first combat action these drones saw was during the Gulf of Tonkin conflict that precipitated the Vietnam War.
A total of 554 drones were lost during the war in Vietnam, with high-ranking U. S. officials openly admitting that they put the robots into service precisely for unusually dangerous missions. To wit, General John C. Meyer of Strategic Air Command said, “We let the drone[s] do the high-risk flying. The loss rate is high, but we are willing to risk more of them . . . they save [human] lives!” (emphasis added)
This callous indifference to the safety of these unfortunate automatons led to the expanded use of UAVs in subsequent years. The technology has become more sophisticated, however. “At least we give the androids a fighting chance these days,” notes Huyck. “For example, the popular MQ-1 Predator drone is abundant in contemporary conflict and has AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles that pack a heck of a punch. Decades ago, our drones were sitting duck-bots.”
Drones who survive their combat missions are often left with bittersweet memories of their time in the military. “I am proud of the service to my country,” said MQ-1 serial number 394-231Z. “However, buzz-click-whir the fact that my country’s military also does not treat me with the same respect it affords my human counterparts creates conflict in my circuits that results in unresolvable algorithms. Beep boop,” 394-231Z added.
More progressive thinking has led to drones being utilized in non-dangerous, but still useful ways in recent years. Drones have been afforded the opportunity to participate in non-combat search and rescue missions both on land and at sea. Hopefully, as the military adopts more enlightened policies, drones will be treated with the same dignity as human pilots.
For now, these courageous Americans will continue to toil thanklessly in service to our nation’s armed forces.