The television technology was a limitation

Monday, November 20th, 2023

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingAmerica’s first attack drones date back to World War 2, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers):

Lt. Commander Delmar Farhney worked with the US Naval Research Laboratory in the 1930s building radio-controlled anti-aircraft targets for the Navy. It was an exciting era to be working with radio, and Farhney was convinced that unmanned aircraft would be devastatingly effective. By 1941, he had extended his work to aircraft capable of accurately dropping torpedoes and depth charges. Incidentally, Farhney was the first to officially refer to his aircraft as “drones,” a usage the military has since tried to suppress.


He could not use metal, so the TDN-1 was made from plywood.


Some of the work was carried out by organ makers Wurlitzer, with their long experience at shaping plywood. The TDR-1 had a wingspan of forty-eight feet, a speed of almost a hundred and fifty miles per hour, and awkward tricycle landing gear to give space for a 2,000-pound bomb or torpedo slung beneath the fuselage

As an airplane, the TDR-1 was unremarkable, but it was equipped with a remarkable technological breakthrough: remote control by television. Dr. Vladimir Zworykin of RCA was one of the inventors of the television, and he was keen to put it to use in drones. The prototype cameras weighed over three hundred pounds including the transmitter, but this was shrunk into a miniature system weighing ninety-seven pounds, packed into a box the size of a carry-on suitcase. The picture was monochrome with a respectable resolution (350 lines) and a refresh rate of forty hertz, but the image was poor by modern standards. The drone operator had to work under a black cloth to see the green, five-inch screen clearly in daylight.


It was controlled from a modified Avenger torpedo bomber flying up to eight miles away. The special Avenger had a crew of four, with pilot, radio operator, and gunner joined by a drone operator. The latter had a joystick, a television screen, and a rotary telephone dial. The dial controlled altitude and released weapons by dialing specific numbers, and the television gave a real sense of being in the drone.


The drones were eventually allowed to attack a derelict Japanese freighter called Yamazuki Maru off Guadalcanal. Three out of four drones hit the target, and, after some hesitation, the unit was sent into action.

The STAG-1 drones successfully attacked anti-aircraft sites, gun positions, ships, and even a lighthouse. Many of them were used in suicide attacks against challenging targets; the Japanese, not knowing they were unmanned, called them “American kamikazes.”


The commander of the STAG-1, Lt Commander Robert Jones, was convinced that their successes would prove the value of the drone concept. He believed drones would be an important weapon in the assault on mainland Japan. But the Navy top brass did not agree. The drones might be good for precision attacks, but what were needed were formations of heavy bombers. After the drones were all expended, STAG-1 was reassigned. Commander Jones watched unhappily as the thirty Avenger control planes were dumped overboard in Reynard Sound.

The television technology was a limitation, as anyone who has worked with monochrome images can appreciate. Targets that had a clear silhouette, like a ship on the water, showed up clearly and were easy to hit. But any target surrounded by jungle tended to be invisible on the small screen, as they blended in with the confused background.

(Meanwhile, experiments with larger radio-controlled aircraft as suicide bombers against major targets had limited success. In the most famous disaster, Lt Joseph Kennedy Junior was killed when a “robot” PB4Y-1 bomber blew up prematurely in 1944. This left his younger brother John F Kennedy as the family heir.)

Both Farhney and Jones continued the struggle to get drones recognised, and during the Korean War, unmanned attack planes were tried again. In 1952, six obsolete F6F Hellcats were converted to unmanned operation. They were controlled from nearby AD-2Q Skyraiders, with a television system developed from the one on the TDR-1. Flying from the aircraft carrier USS Boxer, the drones successfully hit a power plant, a railway tunnel, and a bridge. Jones wanted to continue operations and attack the Yalu River bridges, which had survived repeated attacks by US heavy bombers.

Farhney went on to become a Rear Admiral and headed the Navy’s guided missile research effort — and in the 1950s he made a number of public statements about UFOs, which he believed to be craft of extraterrestrial origin.


  1. Handle says:

    Thanks very much for this except, it related important historical events in a way for which I had insufficient appreciation of the connection.

    So, for example, the reason we got JFK instead of JPK was because JPK was a naval aviator in WWII assigned to Operation Aphrodite and one of the world’s first “Kamikaze FPV Drone Operators”, *80* years ago!

    It’s just that given the tech at the time, the drones were just slightly modified B-17s and B 24s, obviously big enough to carry people inside in addition to ordnance, which was convenient because they needed to be crewed (for example, as “human robot” solenoids to arm the explosives) until the final attack phase was steered in by an operator on a nearby aircraft, just before which the crew would bail out. JPY was trained to do both, but just two months after DDay, he was one of the crew on a B-24, and after he pulled the safety pin but before be could bail our the huge exclusive prematurely detonated and we got the second-oldest Kennedy son for President and the rest is history. The Kennedys are mostly off the page, but fpv kamikaze drone operation is still going strong!

  2. Bert E. says:

    Joseph P. died when his plane while on mission prematurely detonated. The son of Franklin Roosevelt was flying in chase plane as part of the mission. They had a program on PBS that said the fusing safety mechanism might have been of faulty design and was the reason for the premature detonation.

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