In 1898, five years before the Wright brothers achieved powered flight, the eccentric and brilliant Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla offered a vision of future warfare: squadrons of unmanned, remote-controlled planes battling in the air, while their operators remained on the ground.
Tesla was given to extravagant scientific prophesy. He discovered alternating current and was a pioneer of wireless communication. But he was also very odd. He claimed to have invented a giant death ray. He was obsessed by pigeons and the number three and physically revolted by any form of jewellery. He died in 1943, dismissed by many as cranky.
But more than a century after Tesla predicted that pilotless aircraft would be the weapons of the future, his vision has come true. Unmanned aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are proliferating at an astonishing rate, and the technology has developed so dramatically in the past five years that it has changed the nature of war itself.
But the drone is far more than just a weapon. A surveillance machine that can look down from above, anywhere and everywhere, represents a cultural and political as well as a scientific turning point. Like other inventions spurred by the demands of conflict and defence — including nuclear power, the computer and GPS — drones have the potential to affect civilian life in radical and far-reaching ways.
Pilotless drones fly over and into the dull, dirty and dangerous places that humans shrink from. The new technology will transform agriculture, policing, hurricane tracking, fire fighting, humanitarian missions, oil exploration, archaeology, air-sea rescue and journalism. Drones can be used to kill people and to stop others from killing. They represent a dangerous erosion of privacy and a tool for undermining the secrecy beloved of terrorists and despots.
Most of us will probably never see a drone, but they are already hovering over our lives. For the past three years, the Obama Administration has conducted a secretive and growing love affair with war drones. Missiles fired from drones have killed more than 2,500 people in Pakistans tribal areas in the covert targeted killing programme — the CIA euphemism for assassination. The US Air Force has now developed the biggest drone yet, the Avenger, an invisible, deadly behemoth able to stay aloft for nearly two days at a time.
Drone strikes may be legally and morally dubious, but they are relatively cheap, politically attractive since they involve no US casualties and lethally effective. Intelligence sources boast that the average age of an al-Qaeda commander in the tribal regions has dropped by a decade as the senior ranks have been steadily wiped out. That effectiveness has not gone unnoticed by Americas enemies as well as her allies.
A drone arms race is already under way. According to the UN more than 40 countries have purchased or developed surveillance drones. Israel is a pioneer in drone technology and in Gaza the sound of drones buzzing overhead is known as zenana, the slang for a persistently nagging wife. China unveiled 25 new drone models at an air show last year and Iran claims to have two drones, messengers of death, capable of long-range missions. Turkey is keen to buy armed drones from the US for use against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
As the drone trade booms and the technology evolves faster than international law and ethics can, these cheap, accurate and devastating weapons are certain to fall into the wrong hands. A number of websites already offer step-by-step guides to DIY-drone production. Hezbollah deployed a drone during the 2006 Lebanon War and in autumn last year a man was arrested in Boston for allegedly planning to fly a remote-controlled aircraft armed with explosives into the Pentagon.
But if the drone will revolutionise war, it may also change the nature of peace, by enabling Man to look down, unseen, on any point of the globe, a capability hitherto restricted to God. Police in the US may soon begin using a miniature drone, which costs less than a squad car and can follow criminals from above at a fraction of the expense and risk of a helicopter. Drones with cameras could transform the policing of riots and, more worryingly, lawful demonstrations.
Unmanned aircraft are used by police to track drug trafficking in the Amazon Basin and by environmental activists to follow whaling ships. Drones can carry out geophysical surveys to calculate rock structure and mineral deposits, while oil and gas companies use them to monitor and protect pipelines. Farmers and wildlife experts will be able to track animals remotely and in Japan drones are already used to spray crops. Russian archaeologists have used drones to construct three-dimensional images of ancient burial mounds and squadrons of drones may one day be sent by aid agencies to deliver food and medicine to areas made inaccessible by conflict or geography. Just as UAVs were used to track Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi, so can they be deployed against non-human adversaries: scientists used drones to assess damage at Fukushima and to monitor clouds of volcanic ash.
Drones can see what governments wish to hide. Would President Assad of Syria dare to murder his citizens with a journalistic drone hovering overhead? What secrets could a drone have revealed as an uninvited guest at the funeral of Kim Jong Il? The CIA will not allow journalists to visit the sites of its missile strikes in Pakistan, but a private UAV could make an inspection without permission: drones reporting on drones.
As ever, the prospect of a powerful new technology is both exhilarating and terrifying. The drone could be an extraordinary force for good, but only if the US Administration opens up its targeted killing programme to public scrutiny and the world agrees on rules governing the use of drones, backed up by a non-proliferation treaty.
Tesla knew well that scientific advance carries a cost: You may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension, he warned. The future will show whether my foresight is accurate. The age of the drones he predicted has now arrived; we should see them as both a blessing and a threat, because they can already see us.