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 5 of 6)
A competition among four entrants ended with a $31.7 million contract, awarded to General Atomics in January 1994, to deliver three Predators and a ground control station within six months and more within another year. Predator crews became the first combatants in history able to spy on and, eventually, kill an enemy from the opposite side of the globe.
Given its impact, the Predator alone might warrant hall of fame honors for Karem—even if the RQ-1/MQ-1’s ultimate success owes as much to General Atomics and an obscure Air Force office nicknamed “Big Safari,” which armed Karem’s invention and devised a communications system to let operators fly it and launch its missiles from a dozen time zones away. The Predator, though, is only the most prominent contribution Karem has made to aviation in a career that has spanned five decades.
Shortly after leaving General Atomics—eager to pursue new projects, he departed a month before the Predator’s first flight—Karem began work on what is now Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird UAV, the first helicopter whose rotor changes its speed over a large range of revolutions per minute without excessive vibration or instability, gaining cruise and hover efficiency and reducing noise by always turning at optimum rpm.
Karem attracted Army interest in the A160 but was told the service would trust only a major company with its production. In 2004, determined to see the craft built in quantity, he reluctantly sold his company, Frontier Systems, to Boeing for an undisclosed sum. Then he watched, chagrined, as the Army cancelled the program this year, citing cost and technical risk.
“Boeing and the Army both badly misjudged the maturity of the A160 at the time of transfer,” says Benjamin Tigner, Karem Aircraft’s director of integrated systems. Tigner was vice president of engineering at Frontier Systems and served as Boeing’s chief A160 engineer for a year and a half before leaving Boeing to work on his own, which he did for five years before rejoining Karem in 2010.
Tony Tether, who as DARPA director from 2001 to 2009 was also interested in the A160, agrees with Tigner’s analysis. “It will come back,” says Tether. “This is too good an aircraft to not come back.”
Karem remains undaunted. He’s now spending a large part of the proceeds from the sale of Frontier Systems on developing a 737-size tiltrotor. The helicopter-airplane hybrid, which would use optimum-speed rotors akin to the one he patented for the A160, is meant to compete with regional jets. Bloodied but unbowed, Karem is marketing his tiltrotor to the military too.
“The things he attempts to do are things in which he thinks he can make a gigantic leap forward somehow,” says Tigner.