Nowadays, drones are a very familiar thing, and multiple companies are already manufacturing these unpiloted aircraft. Depending on their purpose, they could carry out numerous tasks from military operations like shooting down enemies, spying on their activities, or delivering packages. Their sizes also vary from huge ones to something smaller than the palm of your hands, like the pocket-sized scouting drone called Black Hornet.
During World War II, there were early attempts of these unmanned vehicles in the form of tanks. Although they were not impressive by today’s standards, they could still be pretty interesting.
It all started when in 1915, the French designers created their remote-controlled military vehicle called the French Crocodile Schneider Torpille Terrestre. It was an electrically-powered vehicle that could carry up to 40 kg explosive charge through its caterpillar mechanism, its purpose being to attack the barbed wire and concrete defenses of the Germans.
When the Soviet Union found out about it, they decided to create their own class of radio-controlled tank called teletanks. From 1929 to 1930, the designers of the Special Technical Bureau for military special-purpose inventions, the All-Union State Institute of Telemechanics, Telecommunications Institute, and the Electromechanical Research Institute all worked to develop their own remotely operated vehicles for the Soviet Union.
The first one would come from the French FT-17 light tanks that the Soviets would capture from White Russian forces. They rigged this FT-17 with the MOST-1 radio system using a long wire. It could only follow three basic commands: turn left, turn right, and stop. It also had an unimpressive speed of 2.5 miles per hour. A year later, they upgraded the remote control system that they used and installed it on their T-18 tank. They also tried this radio system on the T-26, T-26, and TT-TU.
While navigating the tank into danger zones without risking the crew was indeed a good development, the command crew of these teletanks had difficulties gauging the terrain that their tanks were driving through, given they were a mile away. Hence, it was pretty common for these tanks to breakdown while navigating rough terrain.
The TT-18 was manufactured in 1933 as a result of the Soviet’s continuous development of the T-18. This new teletank was controlled by 16 operators, weighed in at six tons, and had better maneuverability and speed with its narrow tracks, so it was easier to lurch left or right across the difficult terrain of the battlefield. Moreover, it had the capability of jamming its engine to blow up the transported mine and release either toxic gases or smoke screen. The operators could control the TT-18 at a distance of almost 1 mile. Its effective radio system range was only 500 to 1,000 meters, which could be less, depending on the weather.
The TT-18 would automatically stop in the event that it left the control zone, preventing it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Because the tank had no crew, they installed a large TNT in the turret of the tank, rigged to explode if the enemies opened the hatch.
On the other hand, one major drawback of the TT-18 was that even the smallest road obstacle under its track would throw off its trajectory movement, and this was because of its high center of gravity and small mass. For this reason, the tank was not mass-produced.
End of the Teletanks
In 1933, Vladimir Bekauri led the Soviet Special Technology Bureau, and they decided to turn their attention to the T-26 light tank, which was the most capable design during its time. T-26 was only thinly armored with 15 mm of steel and traveled at a pokey speed of just 19 miles per hour, but its 45mm cannon was better than most German tanks of WWII. Soon, they produced 162 TT-26 robot chemical tanks and TU-26 command vehicles that used the TOZ-IV radio control systems, then later on changed to TOZ-VI. These tanks all served as part of the USSR’s Telemechanical Group.
During the Great Patriotic War from 1941 to 1945, these radio-controlled tanks didn’t see combat, while the Luftwaffe’s air strikes had already destroyed the others at the beginning of the war. Those that survived were dismantled and turned into conventional tanks instead.