The TDR-1 was decades ahead of its time.
Conventional wisdom has that the proliferation of American remote-controlled warfare is a product of the post-9/11 era. While it’s true that Predator and Reaper drones capable of dropping laser or satellite guided bombs have come into their own in that time, America’s first drone bombers took to the skies much earlier than that—in 1944 to be precise.
In the early years of World War II, desperate for any technological advantage it could use on the battlefield, the U.S. military funded all sorts of unusual projects using new, untested technologies. The atomic bomb is one example. Another was essentially World War II’s equivalent of a Reaper drone. The U.S. Navy paid the Interstate Aircraft Company to develop a remote-controlled bomber that could carry a 1,000 pound bomb or torpedo.
The result was TDR-1, a twin-engine what we would today called “optionally manned” aircraft. The aircraft was made with pressed wood from Wurlitzer – the music organ company. The aircraft’s body was made with metal tubes supplied by Schwinn, the bicycle company. Although that sounds unusual, it was par for the course in a time when companies that made parking meters switched to rifles and car manufacturers built tanks.
Here’s a video of a TDR-1 undergoing Navy trials, complete with TV camera footage:
The TDR-1 had a cockpit that allowed it to be flown like a conventional aircraft to battle zones. Once there, the aircraft was fitted with a half-ton aircraft bomb. The aircraft had a television camera in the nose, brand-new technology at the time. A crewman in the Avenger could receive the crude TV signals to locate a target and then direct the bomber to bomb the target—or crash into it.
The drones were first demonstrated for the Navy brass in late July 1944. The Navy was impressed enough with the TDR-1 that it ordered them into combat. On September 27th 1944, four drones were armed with 2,000 pound bombs and flown towards a Japanese gun installation on the island of Bougainville. Three of the drones didn’t make it but the third did, crashing directly into the gun position and exploding. The age of drone warfare had arrived.