The Man Who Invented the Predator
Before he designed the world’s most feared drone, Abraham Karem was just trying to get a robot to stay in the air.
- By Richard Whittle
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
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In the meantime, Abraham Karem was growing frustrated with Israel’s military acquisition system. Born in Iraq on June 27, 1937, Karem was raised in Israel, where his father took his wife and four sons—Abe was the third—when the Jewish state was founded after World War II. A precocious child, Abe felt loved and encouraged growing up, even when, as a toddler, he pulled the back off a large standing radio and pulled out the big vacuum tubes, one by one, to “see where is the man who talks from there.” As that memory suggests, Abe fell in love with engineering early in life.
“I am a toy man,” he explains. “What motivates me from the time I was a kid—call it technology, call it whatever—it was play. By the age of eight, I knew I’m going to be a mechanical engineer. And oh my God, by the age of 13 or 14, I fell in love with aeronautics. At 14, I started building model aircraft. Within two years, I was the instructor in the [high school] aero club.” Later, he earned a private pilot’s license.
Karem’s aeronautical engineering degree is from Israel’s renowned Technion institute of technology. He remembers his professors as idealists, working together to build a society and secure its survival. Their attitude of selfless common cause stayed with him. Karem’s belief in the power of teamwork has been a trademark of his career.
“I built three wonderful teams in Israel,” he boasts. “I built two here.” On the first team he built in the United States, he adds, were several engineers who today are technical leaders and executives at Predator-maker General Atomics, including company president Frank Pace, who once “was the closest thing to my right-hand man.”
While at the Technion, and as an air force officer for nine years afterward, Karem learned to design and maintain real aircraft but also continued his childhood interest in models. He entered free flight model competitions and world championships, in which entrants strive for the longest flight under a complex set of rules. After the air force, Karem joined Israel Aircraft Industries, where he rapidly made his way toward the top. Within four years, and while still in his 30s, he was in line to be named executive vice president for engineering, he says, but decided to strike out on his own.
There were several reasons for moving on, but among them was an epiphany he’d had in late 1973, while working on an urgent air force request to design a radar-fooling drone decoy. The project came to naught because Israel ended up buying decoys from the United States, but by working on it, Karem came to see unmanned aircraft as unconquered territory. In early 1974, despite protests and warnings from higher-ups, he left IAI and started a company of his own to design UAVs.
Karem’s departure from IAI was the first major manifestation of a maverick streak that has been a source of lift to his career but also a source of drag. He has escaped corporate culture and holds more than 20 patents to show for it—on aircraft designs, mechanical devices, material production methods, and subsystem innovations—but his ability to see things in a new light has also made him impatient with those who fail to grasp his insights.
“Gentlemen, everything I see in this room is nonsensical,” one longtime associate recalls Karem telling a roomful of engineers at a major defense company who had invited him in to discuss collaboration on a project. Then he closed his briefcase and walked out. A Karem friend remembers a meeting where Abe called a group of defense acquisition officials “clerks.”