Game-Changing Drone Conceived in a West Coast Garage

by | Jan 3, 2012

Abraham Karem built his Albatross drone in the early 1980s. From that modest creation would evolve today's Predator drone.

Abraham Karem began building an unmanned aircraft in his garage, but the work eventually spilled into the guest room. When Karem finished more than a year later, he wheeled into his driveway an odd, cigar-shaped craft that was destined to change the way the United States wages war.

The Albatross, as it was called, was transported to the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where it demonstrated the ability to stay aloft safely for up to 56 hours”a long time in what was then the crash-prone world of drones.

Three iterations and more than a decade of development later, Karem's modest-looking drone became the Predator, the lethal, remotely piloted machine that can circle above the enemy for nearly a day before controllers thousands of miles away in the Southwest United States launch Hellfire missiles toward targets they are watching on video screens.

The emergence of hunter-killer and surveillance drones as revolutionary new weapons in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in counterterrorism operations in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry”much of it centered in Southern California, once the engine of Cold War military aviation.

During the next 10 years, the Pentagon plans to purchase more than 700 medium-size and large drones at a cost of nearly $37 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office study. Thousands more mini-drones will be fitted in the backpacks of soldiers so they can hand-launch them in minutes to look over the next hill or dive-bomb opposing forces.

This booming sector has its roots in the often-unsung persistence of engineering dreamers who worked on the technology of unmanned aviation when the military establishment and most major defense contractors had little or no interest in it. Innovators such as Karem were often sustained by grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a handful of early believers, including theCIA.

Karem said he imagined his drones involved in a tactical conflict with the Warsaw Pact, be it on the plains of Germany or as part of our Navy and Marines. He had to sell his company, and with it the prototype of the Predator, long before it became the icon of a new kind of warfare.

I did not envision the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of warfare with non-state adversaries, said Karem, an aeronautical engineer who served for nine years in the Israeli air force before settling in the United States in 1977.

In the past decade, drones have become an integral part of U.S. military doctrine”so much so that it's difficult to recall how marginal they once seemed. The military had fewer than 200 drones the day before the attacks ofSept. 11, 2001; today it has more than 7,000, including mini-drones.

Before Sept. 11, drones weren't on the road map, said Tim Conver, chairman and chief executive of AeroVironment, which builds close-in surveillance drones for the military. It wasn't something that (the Defense Department) had said, ˜We need this. Let's build a program around this.' 

Before 2001, AeroVironment, through various small contracts, sold a drone called the Pointer in small numbers to the military. Nobody ever really used them, said Conver. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the company has sold the military thousands of small drones.

The companies that design and manufacture drones have experienced massive growth that shows no sign of slowing, even with the end of the war in Iraq and the planned drawdown in Afghanistan. The technology is significantly cheaper than traditional aircraft, and its potential uses increase as the craft become faster and stealthier.

Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va., market analysis firm, estimates that nearly $100 billion will be spent globally on drones between now and 2019.

The needs for (unmanned aerial vehicles) are unsatisfied, said Phil Finnegan, Teal Group's director of corporate analysis. The military wants a lot more. Worldwide you have very limited adoption of UAVs, but foreign militaries have seen the success in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they want them.

The rise of drones has been a small boon for Southern California, where the aerospace industry has contracted painfully in the past two decades. About 10,000 state residents are directly employed in the drone sector. And for national security reasons, much of the supply chain is kept onshore, generating jobs among contractors and subcontractors.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes the Predator and the next-generation Reaper drone, is in Poway, north of San Diego. AeroVironment, which makes an array of backpackable mini-drones, such as the Raven and the Wasp, is in Simi Valley.

Northrop Grumman is testing the X-47B, a carrier-based fighter drone, for the Navy in Palmdale. The RQ-170, the stealth drone manufactured by Lockheed Martin and used by the military and theCIA, is believed to have emerged from the company's classified facility, the Skunk Works, also in Palmdale, near Edwards Air Force Base.

In the mid-1970s, Paul MacCready, an aeronautical engineer and the first American to become a world gliding champion, needed cash fast to cover a bad loan he had guaranteed. MacCready, the founder of AeroVironment, and a team of engineers at the company decided to chase the Kremer Prize, the reward for besting a challenge that had gone unmet for 20 years: a human-powered aircraft capable of flying a figure eight around two markers half a mile apart.

In 1977, MacCready's Gossamer Condor, piloted by Bryan Allen, took the prize, then worth about $100,000. Two years later, Allen flew another version of the bird across the English Channel. AeroVironment, which consulted on air quality, began a sideline in aviation firsts.

You had these incredibly talented people attracted to something this cool, Conver said. All the airplanes were extraordinarily light. All were focused on things that hadn't been done before.

The group eventually flew a solar-powered craft from Paris to England, built a working model of Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine and created a flying model of a pterodactyl. In 1987, AeroVironment flew the first backpack-portable unmanned military aircraft, a 9-pound plane with a camera in its nose. It was called the Pointer.

They were bought for evaluation, Conver said. They were prototypes.

When the first Special Operations teams went into Afghanistan in October 2001, they brought with them two Pointer systems they used for low-altitude surveillance. Soon, word was going up the chain that the troops wanted more Pointers for Afghanistan's difficult terrain. High above them, the Predator and Global Hawk were also proving themselves.

The Predator is my most capable sensor in hunting down and killing al-Qaida and Taliban leadership and is proving absolutely critical to our fight, Gen. Tommy Franks wrote in a 2003 Air Force background paper.

The drive for drones was on, and the effect on companies such as AeroVironment was profound. In 2001, the company had annual revenue of $29.4 million. In the decade that followed, that number swelled to nearly $300 million, nearly 85 percent of it from the sale of drones. The company, which employs 768 people, up from 163 in 2001, went public in 2007.

Source: The Bulletin

Image courtesy of Brett Hartman / For The Washington Post



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