Frank Herbert created the weaponry in Dune to build a deadlock: If a lasgun is fired upon a Holtzmann shield, both will be destroyed. Unpredictably, there might be even larger damage up until to what corresponds to atomic warheads.

Has it ever been mentioned, why there is no automated warfare to take leverage of this situation? If you want to destroy your enemy, fly a lasgun-enabled drone to his shield-protected station, let the drone fire and get a destroyed enemy base for the prize of a single unmanned drone.

Drones exist in Dune, as we know from the failed assassination attempt with the poison-carrying drone against Paul.

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    Isn't the dislike for automated large-scale killing a butlerian jihad-thing in canon ? At least the killer drone requires an operator close by, but semi-autonomous machines killing humans on a large scale would probably be much frowned upon (i.e. the other houses would propably terminate you with extreme prejudice if you try to pull this off). Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:37
  • Hm, that sounds reasonable.
    – Boldewyn
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:39
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    A key point, thinking machines are banned, aka computers/AI. something that is purely mechanical is not banned, so technically a drone with a lasgun wouldn't be banned if it was made entirely mechanical. something like this could be made with timing gears ect, without anything like a cpu or AI. Another big point is that In the butlerian jihad computers were not banned, only AI was banned, think battle star galactica, there using computers, just nothing networked, no AI, their was fear the machine could hack in, just like the cylons do in battlestar.
    – Himarm
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 13:04
  • Actually the jihad led to the prohibition of any machine "in the likeness of a human mind." [Orange Catholic Bible] I think that would also include mechanical calculating devices as they still use many of the same principles. Using mechanical devices to augment physical performance is one thing, but augmenting any kind of synchronization or coordination efforts sounds a lot like treading on the territory of 'mind'. Note that as Paul flies the Ornithopter Herbert is quite careful to describe his detailed perceptions of all the physics involved. Certainly no fly-by-wire here. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:51
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    From the O.C. Bible : "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind". Thus, no computers. Thus, no automation. Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 13:03

10 Answers 10


Any autonomous mechanical devices are forbidden (sparring bot is described as dangerously close to thinking machine according to law and religion (IIRC). Butlerian Jihad took care of that.

So teleoperated, just like the assassination drone in OP's question - which means short range (if any), as signal jamming would be employed. Don't remember though if there's mention of jamming.

Drone with lasgun necessarily will be big and bulky, thus easy to destroy. Unless shielded, but then will be a risk to the launcher.

And last - there is a mention that both lasgun and shield are destroyed in atomic annihilation (or something to that effect), so shooter gets the same treatment as the shield protected target. So this would be a case of Mexican standoff (range) weapon.

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    Your should edit your answer to make explicit that the seeker was not autonomous, but in fact remotely operated (tele-operated :).
    – Lexible
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 16:40
  • You think sO? Not to argue - just to clarify - but first sentence mentions ban on autonomous devices. So this would be redundant. But I certainly can edit if gives better answer.
    – AcePL
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 9:36
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    Well, since the seeker attempting to assassinate Paul was explicitly described in Dune as requiring an operator close by, I would say yes. Yes, I do think so. :)
    – Lexible
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 16:06
  • Ok, let's do it.
    – AcePL
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 9:09

A house of the Landsraad is strongly bound by culture, rules and tradition. If one great house attacked another this way it would be deemed to be dishonourable, and also may be considered a use of atomics in warfare, which would result in retaliation by every other great house.

When Paul uses the Atreides house atomics against the Shield Wall (A large mountain range in northern Arrakis) the Emperor was outraged that he dared use atomics in battle. Paul explains that he used them against the landscape not against his enemies, because even as an outcast leading a band of outcasts he still wouldn't attack with atomics.

On top of this there is a difference in using a remote assassins drone vs large scale use of remotes in warfare, which I think would veer close to the proscriptions of the Butlerian Jihad. It would be unthinkable.

The limitations are cultural, not technological.

  • So the reason is the same real life reason why no one drops nukes on ISIS (and no one dropped nukes on Baghdad). From a strictly military point of view it would be very effective in destroying them, but the damage to the reputation would make it not worth it.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 6:08

The humans outlawed, religiously prohibited, and feared, non-human computation.

The Butlerian Jihad was an epic war against AI beings that had enslaved humanity. After the human victory, the humans outlawed non-human computation. Hence various guilds of human computers (e.g. the mentats) formed in order to cultivate the human ability to perform the sort of computations that computers had performed for them before the Jihad.

From Wikipedia

The Butlerian Jihad is an event in the back-story of Frank Herbert's fictional Dune universe. Occurring over 10,000 years before the events chronicled in his 1965 novel Dune, this jihad leads to the outlawing of certain technologies, primarily "thinking machines," a collective term for computers and artificial intelligence of any kind. This prohibition is a key influence on the nature of Herbert's fictional setting.

From the glossary in Dune

JIHAD, BUTLERIAN: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."

From Dune Messiah

"From the days of the Butlerian Jihad when 'thinking machines' had been wiped from most of the universe, computers had inspired distrust."

In God Emperor of Dune, Siona Atreides presences Leto's "Golden Path"

He knew this experience, but could not change the smallest part of it. No ancestral presences would remain in her consciousness, but she would carry with her forever afterward the clear sights and sounds and smells. The seeking machines would be there, the smell of blood and entrails, the cowering humans in their burrows aware only that they could not escape . . . while all the time the mechanical movement approached, nearer and nearer and nearer ...louder...louder! Everywhere she searched, it would be the same. No escape anywhere.

If you accept Brian Herbert's prequels as cannon, then a small groups of humans used a network of artificially intelligent computers named Ominus in order to enslave humanity. A century later, Ominus enslaved the humans who used it to do so, and so enslaved all of humanity. That slavery lasted nine centuries. It ended when Manion Butler incited the slaves to revolt; thus beginning the century long, but ultimately successful, Butlerian Jihad.

  • That's no direct answer to my question, but thanks for the background information!
    – Boldewyn
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 15:11
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    @Boldewyn, the humans, outlawed, religiously prohibited, and feared, non-human computation (that included everything from sentient robots to simple calculators). Thus they, outlawed, and feared, automated weapons
    – Hal
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 15:13
  • Yes, but as I said in the question, there are kinds of drones, that do exist, although with human controllers. However, I was unaware of a) their range and b) of the impact of the Butlerian Jihad towards the mindset of developing/using such a weapon. In this respect your answer helped a lot.
    – Boldewyn
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 17:32
  • You say "I did it remotely via remote control". We say What we saw looked like a thinking machine. We attack and you become an outlaw if you survive ... Restrictions against use via prohibition + feared retaliation from the combined forces of the Landsrad = reason to walk lightly when it comes to "nuking" (even via shield+laser+drone).
    – WernerCD
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 17:55
  • @WernerCD What about a one-man operated device? The cost goes up from a disposable drone to a human life, but 1 life is still a small price in a war. It doesn't solve the atomic prohibition, but would it get past the non-human prohibition?
    – Marsh
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 21:17

In the specific example questioned: the deliberate use of a lasgun-shield explosion can possibly be interpreted as a violation of the Great Convention which prohibits the use of atomics.

The penalty for violation of the convention is atomic obliteration of the offender. The use of tactics which risk such would logically be discouraged.

In a more general case, the Butler prohibition offered by other answerers explains why automation is less common.


"Has it ever been mentioned, why there is no automated warfare to take leverage of this situation?" - the short answer, YES! All of the talk about the "Butlerian Jihad" is about why there is no automated ANYTHING.

Imagine the Terminator series' SkyNet, or the Matrix's System. Imagine how anyone living through something like that would feel at the prospect of anyone else out there deliberately creating a machine potentially able to return the Human race to those conditions.

That's why there is no automated ANYTHING in the Dune series - it's a deeply-ingrained pan-cultural aversion to anything with the potential to become an autonomous people-killing monster. Well, except for another person.


Actually, this tactic was used once. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holtzman_effect:

Using lasguns in a shielded environment can result in military and environmental catastrophe, though at one point in Dune Duncan Idaho deliberately allows shield/lasgun contact as a discouragement to his enemies.

That's the main reason the Sardaukar fought their entire Dune campaign using only hand-to-hand combat.

  • Ah sorry, just realized the question is specifically about using drones..
    – nick
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 22:32

This is not due to the Butlerian Jihad. We know that remotely-operated drones are fine (the hunter-seeker from Dune, and to some extent the Laza Tigers from Children). In addition, automated devices are not uncommon. Alia trains with an automated dummy in Messiah, and thopters, lighters, spice harvesters, and no-ships must, on some level, rely on automated control systems.

The Butlerian Jihad prohibited thinking machines, not automation. It encourages human involvement, but does not prohibit everything machine-related.

Rather, I suspect the lack of use of the device you describe is due to its inconsistency. There are mentions of the interaction destroying variable areas, as small as the lasgun and shield users and as large or larger than atomics. It's worth noting that the Atreides used hidden shields as booby traps against the Harkonnen, but this was a desperate ploy.


In "Dune" (the book), most things which we would recognize as electronic computers were prohibited. However, there was a device mentioned in passing, a "servok", something akin to a mechanical timer, which was used for automatically watering plants on a schedule.


Let's ignore the book itself and answer with just the logic of it.

If you can create and use atomics what stops you?

Why would the ability to create and use lasers + shields suddenly lead to open season?

Laser + shield can lead to an atomic level explosion so really, you are just deploying a nuke.

So the answer is as always enlightened self interest. If I nuke someone else then I create a world that is ok with nuking me as well. Why would I do that?

The chapter is not closed but it seems likely that even on earth in the real world we have seen the only two cases of nuclear weapon use.


The question of drones in warfare is not one of Dunes environment but of practicality based on the environment. While a drone is a practical weapon when the target has no real defense system. Drones in the Dune world themselves would not have counter-defensive capabilities such as tactical avoidance or shields. It would be a waste of time and effort against the superior offense and defensive capabilities of its target. Human operators would also come under mind attacks.

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    Is there any canonical reference which supports these claims?
    – Lighthart
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 22:01
  • Canonical reference? really? You only have to read some of the later books that describe the ships (no ships) and other transport systems to see that they have far superior stealth technology and fire power than any drone. Also read about how drones work in trying to kill someone and how they are controlled. You'll see that they are not what people are describing as military. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 21:27
  • You have to read all of the Dune books in order to realize that the question has no real base other than " what if". Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 21:31
  • Your response is based on not really having read the books and making statements that allude to disambiguation through an a attempt to imply that a work of fiction is anything more than the creative musings of the author. Such attempts are more pollutant to a conversation and ultimately do not lead to better or more correct answers but cause off-topic background noise that must be sifted through to get to the real subject matter. Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 4:35
  • No amount of arrogant rambling can change the fact you are not meeting community standards. For example, see this Richard's answer to this question scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/84545/… to determine about how you might give an answer that is based on source material, but can still involve speculation.
    – Lighthart
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 17:15

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