The use of drones for combat is nothing new, but early examples would be pale in comparison to the sophistication of modern ones. However, there were still some shining lights in the history of this technology that might help future generations benefit from this technology.
The Interstate TDR-1, a vehicle developed by the United States towards the end of the Second World War, is an interesting one to observe briefly.
What was Interstate TDR-1?
The Interstate TDR was an early uncrewed combat aerial vehicle developed by the Interstate Aircraft and Engineering Corporation for military use during WWII. At the time, it was classified as a "attack drone," and around 2000 aircraft were ordered.
The TDR-1 had a very simple construction, with a steel-tube frame and a molded wooden skin made by theWurlitzer Musical Instrument Company. Two non-military Lycoming flat-head 6s provided the power, with 230 horsepower each. The drone was constructed using little strategic resources so as not to obstruct the manufacture of higher-priority planes.
The TDR-1 was capable of carrying bombs or torpedoes, but only about 200 were ever completed, and even less were used in combat. Some action against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater was successful.
Around 50 drones were launched over the course of two months, with 31 strikes on anti-aircraft positions, bridges, and grounded ships recorded. The drone would be released by a ground control crew and then handed over to the TBM pilot already flying above the field, guided by a modified TBM-1C Avenger torpedo bomber. The controller would then steer the drone towards its intended destination usingTDR's nose-mounted camera signals.
In October 1944, the attack drone program was canceled due to ongoing development concerns with the aircraft and the success of operations that utilized more conventional weapons.
The Interstate TDR-1's vital statistics
Like many other aircraft, several variations of the Interstate TDR program were built. However, the only production model was the TDR-1. For this reason, we will provide the statistics for that particular model.
July 1944: Entered service
November 1944: When Will I Be Retired?
Crew:01 (optional pilot)
48ft (15m) wingspan
5,900 lbs (2,676 kg) of gross weight
Powerplant:2 Lycoming O-435-2 opposed-piston engines, 220 horsepower (160kW) each
140 mph (230 kph) is the maximum speed of cruising.
Range:425 mi (684 km)
One 2,000-pound (907 kg) bomb or aerial torpedo
What is the history of the TDR-1?
The United States embarked on a quest to develop low-cost, easy-to-use drones in order to help protect its highly valuable and irreplaceable human crews in 1942. Such a far-fetched and experimental technology was placed at the bottom of the military's priority list.
Nevertheless, sufficient US military officials anticipated that such a technology would be beneficial if implemented successfully, particularly in the Pacific Theatre against the Empire of Japan.
Interstate Aircraft was given the task of designing the drones, which were mostly constructed of wood stretched over a metal frame. Each TDR had two engines and a detachable cockpit, giving them the freedom to be piloted by humans if and when required.
A master Grumman TBM-1C Avenger torpedo bomber would follow the drone and control it using technologies that were quite advanced at the time.
What technology was added to the TDR 1 that made it different from all previous UAS?
The TDR-1's secret was a new type of top-secret technology known as an RCA television. Images from a camera installed in the drone's nose were sent to a five-inch screen in the Avenger's rear cockpit. The picture quality was decent, but it was enough for the pilot to see big objects, like enemy ships.
The first batches of drones were shipped to special task air groups (STAGs) specially established to operate them. However, problems with these early drones quickly developed. For example, when they arrived in the Solomon Islands, it was quickly discovered that the tropical climate and the lack of sophisticated infrastructure made flying a nightmare for electrical equipment on the drones.
Nonetheless, these initial difficulties were overcome, and the TDRs were put into action shortly afterwards.
On June 30, 1944, four drones were deployed near Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Three of them were successful.
Four drones were sent to Bougainville in September of the same year on a mission to destroy another beached Japanese vessel. That ship, unlike the previous, was made a bit tougher and had some Japanese protections, like an anti-air battery.
One drone went missing along the way, another came close to hitting the ship but did not detonate, and the last crashed into the ship, successfully detonating its enormous explosive payload.
More flights were scheduled over the next month, some of which were sent to locations more than 100 miles away from their base.
The drones were largely successful in destroying many military targets, but they were criticized by US Navy leaders, and by November 1944, the project was canceled. This was most likely due to politics, distrust, and lack of knowledge of such a new and revolutionary technology, rather than any major design flaws. No American lives were lost as a result of their use.
Some TDR-1s were converted for use as private sports aircraft after the war.
Today, UAV enthusiasts, this is your lot.
The Interstate TDR-1 was a groundbreaking airplane for its time, but, as with most cutting-edge technology throughout history, it likely came a little too early to be fully appreciated. It would, in part, demonstrate to the world how valuable uncrewed aircraft might be in combat, ultimately leading to the development of modern combat drones we all too familiar with today.