The FPV or First Person View kamikaze drone has become one of the defining weapons of the war in Ukraine. Both sides now field FPVs in vast numbers and they are overtaking traditional weapons in destroying tanks and other targets. But aircraft controlled by a remote operator with a pilot’s-eye-view who deliberately crashes into the target with a bomb is not new. The U.S. Navy’s secret STAG-1 unit attacked Japanese forces with just this type of drone in 1944.
America’s Secret Weapon: Television
In the 1930’s, Lt. Commander Delmar Farhney built radio-controlled anti-aircraft targets at the US Naval Research Laboratory. But Farhney – credited for being the first to use the word “drone” for uncrewed aircraft – soon became convinced he could do far more. By 1941, he was demonstrating robot aircraft capable of accurately dropping torpedoes and depth charges. These were all “third person view” drones operated from a distance like a radio-controlled model.
When war was declared, Farhney was tasked with producing an assault drone, with one of the technological wonders of the age: television. Dr. Vladimir Zworykin of RCA was one of the inventors of the television, and he was keen to put it to use for the war effort. A standard television camera or Iconoscope weighed over three hundred pounds, but Zworykin’s team developed a miniaturized system including a transmitter the size of a carry-on suitcase and weighing just ninety-seven pounds.
The image quality was not great, and pictures could be hard to interpret on the monochrome green screen display, but it had a good resolution — 350 lines — and a refresh rate of 40 Hertz. The transmitter could beam back images several mile away, being basically limited to line of sight. The addition of television created the original first person view drones.
Farhney previously worked with obsolete aircraft converted for uncrewed operation, but now every available plane was being used for training or combat. The drones would need to be built from scratch – but without any of the resources that might be needed for other, more important aircraft.
The result was the TDR-1, made by Interstate Aircraft & Engineering, a masterpiece of plywood and improvisation. Some of the work was carried out by organ makers Wurlitzer, who had 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. Fitting a 2,000-pound bomb or torpedo beneath the fuselage was a challenge and the TDR-1 ended up with tail, ungainly tricycle landing gear.
The drone was controlled from a modified Avenger torpedo bomber flying up to eight miles away. The 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 which controlled the drones altitude and could release weapons by dialing specific numbers.
The drone operator had to work under a black cloth to see the green, five-inch screen clearly in daylight, but it gave a real sense of being inside the drone.
“To sit under the hood of an airplane and control the one up ahead with radar and television, where you can actually see where you are going – it felt like you are actually flying that plane,” said one operator.
The drones were tested against a derelict Japanese freighter off Guadalcanal, and the test was deemed a success – video here.
The STAG-1 drones successfully attacked anti-aircraft sites, gun positions, ships, and even a lighthouse.
“I distinctly remember the excitement, watching the grainy and sometimes static-filled green TV screen as the drone I was guiding approached the grounded ship,” said one operator. “When an unfamiliar pattern of small dots began to appear, I thought the receiver was malfunctioning. Suddenly I realized; they were flak bursts! But I kept the drone on target, concentrating on holding its bouncing nose squarely on target. I crabbed it a bit to correct for wind and to avoid the worst of the flak. At the last second, I had a close-up view of the ship’s deck. Then…just static. I had hit the ship squarely amidships.”
The majority of TDR attacks were carried out by crashing into the target, though the unit also experimented with conventional bombing. The Japanese supposedly called the TDR-1s “American kamikazes,” but this is disputed, as the last TDR-1 mission took place before the first Japanese kamikaze attacks.
STAG-1 used 46 TDR drones in combat in September and October 1944. 5 were not able to locate the target due to television failures, 9 lost on the way to the target, 3 shot down by antiaircraft fire. Of the 29 reached their targets there were 7 confirmed hits, and 4 definite misses. The results of the other 18 were not known – the problem of any weapon striking beyond visual range – but the Navy believed that 11 hit at least the general area of the target and 7 missed.
Lt Commander Robert Jones commanding STAG-1 was proud of these results and believed they proved the value of assault drones. His unit was scoring precision strikes against targets, and could go in where air defenses were too heavy for manned aircraft. Casualties among dive bomber crews were extremely high, with some units losing 10% or more of their pilots per month. STAG-1 had achieved the same sort of success as conventional diver bombers without the loss of a single airman.
Jones believed that assault drones could play a vital part in the coming attack on Japan. Navy top brass did not agree; they did not want precision, they wanted massed formations of heavy bombers. After the drones were all expended, STAG-1 was reassigned. Jones watched unhappily as the thirty Avenger control planes were dumped overboard in Reynard Sound.
“The great broom of victory swept all new projects into the ashcan of forgotten dreams,” Farhney wrote in an unpublished history of the project.
The entire STAG-1 operation was classified and no details were published until decades after the war. This secret was one reason why the Navy was to rediscover and discard attack drones several times in Korean, Vietnam and afterwards.
80 Years On: Triumph Of The FPV
The modern FPV as seen in Ukraine has more in common with its 1944 predecessor than you might think. It is not just that this is use of new technology disapproved by traditional military commanders. Like the TDR-1, modern FPVs are essentially improvised and assembled from whatever is available. Like the TDR-1, the bomb slung under modern FPVs is awkward – they often take off from four bricks or an improvised stand.
And FPV pilots still have an immersive flight experience, though now it is done with VR-type goggles rather than a black cloth and a small screen. Control range is still basically limited to the line of sight, now aided by flying signal repeaters.
And the modern FPVs are extremely effective at destroying tanks, artillery, trucks and other targets.
This week President Zelensky announced the formation of a separate branch of the armed forces for drones, noting their importance: “Repelling ground assaults is primarily the task of drones. The large-scale destruction of the occupiers and their equipment is also the domain of drones.”
Delmar Farhney would be proud.