Long before Predator drones and PackBots patrolled Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned systems were used in combat—as far back as WWI and WWII, in fact. Here's a quick look at the coolest of the old-timey warbots:
While reading PW Singer's Wired for War, I was surprised by the ingenuity on both sides in coming up with unmanned—and even radio-controlled—machines that were occasionally actually used during the two biggies. I've highlighted six, plus an exceptional example of early computer intelligence, that are all covered at some length in the book.
(If you're skimming this, just be sure to watch the second YouTube video below.)
WORLD WAR I
FL-7 remote-controlled boat (1916) - Sadly unpictured - These German "sprengbootes" carried 135kg of explosives and were tethered by 80km wire to a dude on shore, sitting in a tower 15 metres up. The controller was too vulnerable perhaps, because they soon moved him into an aeroplane buzzing overhead, still trailing that long-arse cable.
Ultimately, they decided to do like Nikolai Tesla did in 1898 at Madison Square Garden with his little motorboat (seen at right), and go R/C. More info on the World War II version of the FL.
Sopwith AT "Aerial Torpedo" (1917) - Maker of Snoopy's famous Sopwith Camel biplane decided that it was possible to do the same thing, only radio controlled and full of explosives, call it the "Aerial Torpedo" and steer it into German Zeppelins. Trouble was, on its test flight, it tried to dive bomb a gathering of generals instead. Whoopsie. More info on the Sopwith AT, and another remote controlled plane of the era, the Queen Bee Tiger Moth.
Wickersham Land Torpedo (1917) - Another ill-fated warbot, this one was startlingly close in looks to the PackBots of today, with its two tank treads. But instead of a sophisticated computer brain, this one packed 450kg of explosive and a rudimentary remote control. Unfortunately for people who like big booms, it never went into production. More information on that and more "unknown" tanks here, sketch here and photo here.
WORLD WAR II
OQ-2 Radioplane aka "Dennymite" (1935) - Actor and World War I hero Reginald Denny opened a hobby shop in the 1930s, and when the specter of World War II loomed, he introduced army personnel to their first target drone, the RP-1. They were impressed, and after several modifications and name changes, Denny was making them by the thousands at an airport in Van Nuys. (As fate would have it, it was at Denny's factory in 1944 that an army photographer spotted a super hot Rosie the Riveter named Norma Jeane, who soon went platinum blonde and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.) More information on the OQ-2 and Marilyn Monroe's discovery.
Fritz X guided bomb (1939) - Another specialty from Germany—the people who brought you the better known "buzzbombs," this one was pretty much a straight-up bomb, but it had radio-controlled fins, so it wasn't exactly smart, but it weren't dumb neither. More info on Fritz here and here.
Goliath remote-controlled tank buster (1940) - If the Germans had time to work on their tank skills between the wars, they also had a little time to hone the tank-killing 'bot. The Goliath has the same classic look as the American Land Torpedo, but managed to be far more effective. This startlingly vivid clip shows actual footage of Germans—sometime during the last gasps of the Nazi regime—steering one into a tank to blow it up.
Norden bomb sight (1932) - If the unmanned vehicles above represent prototypes in the body designs we see in today's land, air and sea robots, the Norden bomb sight was the precursor to their cold, calculating brains.
A telescope would pick out a single spot on the ground, a series of gyroscopes and motors would hold that spot in sight, an analogue computer would figure out the trajectory of the bombs needed to hit the target, and the whole thing would engage the plane's autopilot to make sure the bombing went down as planned. You don't have to read Catch-22 to know that, on bombing runs, nothing ever really went as planned, but the Norden was the closest they had to AI back in WWII, and there's a reason it was said to "put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet" (even if that's not going to do the bomb or the pickle barrel any good). More info here and here.
War nerds, please fill in the comments with your own knowledge of the above unmanned metal-and-gear beasts, or any other favourite ones I might have skipped, and so help me the first commenter to say "These are not robots" gets banned for stating the obvious, and being kind of a wiener about it.
If you haven't yet read through our interview with Wired For War's PW Singer, have a look. And stay tuned for more exciting nuggets of info from the book, a trove of robot trivia not to mention a chilling portrayal of how robots have already infiltrated our military.