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Tesla’s Take on Unmanned Vehicles

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) continue to grow in use and popularity; yet, little attention is paid to UAV history, which contains some valuable, if not shocking (pun intended), insights. On November 8, 1898, Nikola Tesla was granted U.S. Patent Number 613809 for what was likely the first remote control and unmanned vehicle ever envisioned. The patent, entitled “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles,” covered “any type of vessel or vehicle which is capable of being propelled and directed, such as a boat, a balloon, or a carriage.”

This geek was dumbfounded to learn that Tesla was the first person in the world to theorize, envision, and even patent a practical remote-controlled robot or unmanned vehicle. He, of course, had a different name for the technology: “teleautomaton.”

Teleautomation was first unveiled at an electrical industry trade show at Madison Square Garden in New York, also in 1898. Tesla publically demonstrated a remote-controlled unmanned boat operating in a huge tank of water. The display was so sensational that some in the audience are rumored to have believed he was using mind control to move the mysterious three-foot, battery-powered ship.

Tesla's Teleautomaton

Several years ago, engineers built a replica of the teleautomation boat using Tesla’s own original hand-written notes and drawings. More than 300 parts were created by hand and later put on display in The Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

Was Tesla’s robot boat the start of the unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV)? Tesla certainly didn’t stop there; he set his sights higher, looking to the skies.

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