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
(Page 3 of 6)
“Abe has no problem telling others what’s on his mind, that’s for sure,” says Martin Waide, who has worked for Karem more or less steadily since 1979.
The politics of defense contracting, along with his occasionally prickly personality, have conspired to keep some of Karem’s best designs from being accepted by the military. After leaving IAI, Karem spent three years offering the Israeli military one UAV design after another without making a sale. The government—sole shareholder in IAI, whose executives didn’t appreciate his departure—was never going to buy anything from Abe Karem, he finally concluded. Frustrated, he decided to try his luck in the United States, where he knew opportunities for entrepreneurs were far greater. His wife, Dina, whom he’d met when she was an engineering draftsperson in the Israeli air force, backed his decision, as she has supported other big risks he’s taken during their 46 years of marriage.
In 1977, to gain a foothold in the U.S. aerospace industry, Karem took a position with a tiny Los Angeles company called Developmental Sciences Inc., which had offered Israel a drone decoy in 1973 and was now working on projects that included a DARPA-funded UAV. Shortly thereafter, Karem set out on his own again. When he took Dina house hunting, she realized Abe was going to be working at home.
“I’m looking for a house with a garage attached,” she told him. “You’re looking for a garage with a house attached.”
They found a garage Abe liked, attached to a house on a hill in Hacienda Heights, a suburb east of Los Angeles. The garage had 600 square feet of floor space and an equally spacious attic. By 1981, both spaces were crammed full of tools, computers, and handmade molds to fabricate aircraft parts from lightweight composites such as fiberglass and carbon epoxy. Working with Abe in the garage were two other believers in UAVs: Jack Hertenstein, a brainy, bashful engineer and radio control modeler Karem had met at Developmental Sciences, and Jim Machin, a pre-med student who’d impressed Abe at a free-flight modeling meet.
The trio produced a UAV demonstrator that was feather-light—it weighed only 200 pounds—and would carry a television camera in its nose. Hertenstein contributed avionics and ground control, and, Karem says, “tremendous expertise in flying his automated model aircraft without crashing.” According to DARPA calculations, it would stay aloft a stunning 56 hours. Karem named it Albatross.
During Karem’s brief stay at Developmental Sciences, he had met Ira Kuhn, a technology entrepreneur who visited the company to evaluate its UAV on DARPA’s behalf. In the course of conversation, Kuhn described an engineering problem he had been working on. A few days later, Karem called him with a solution. “It was extremely clever and much better than mine,” Kuhn recalls. Kuhn kept in touch, and was so impressed by the Albatross that he told DARPA director Bob Fossum, “This guy is a national asset.”
DARPA ended up funding the Albatross flight tests. The drone’s exceptional performance led the agency in 1985 to contract with Karem’s new company, Leading Systems Inc., to develop a larger endurance UAV the agency named Amber. Navy Secretary John Lehman was pushing the development of UAVs as spotters for the guns on Navy ships. Largely financed by the Navy, Amber also had champions in U.S. Southern Command, who wanted “persistent surveillance” of drug traffickers in Latin America, recalls former DARPA official Bob Williams, who initiated the project.