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

An MQ-9 Reaper in its lair at Balad, Iraq, 2008. A bigger, badder Predator, the MQ-9 has a turboprop engine and Y-shaped tail and can carry almost 4,000 pounds of ordnance. (USAF)
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A few years later, when the Clinton administration was desperately looking for a way to monitor ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, CIA chief James Woolsey remembered Karem, whom he’d met and come to admire years earlier. “Abe’s an entrepreneurial engineering genius,” says Woolsey today. “He lives to create.” The CIA bought two Gnat-750s with video cameras and started flying them over Bosnia. They were launched from Albania, where their ground control station and operators were located. As that was happening, the Department of Defense held a competition for the right to demonstrate in actual missions a more advanced “medium-altitude endurance” UAV. One requirement was that the aircraft have a satellite antenna so it could be flown by operators who were much farther away than those flying the Gnat, which over Bosnia had to relay its signals to Albania through a piloted, motorized glider.

To make room for the satellite antenna, Karem gave the Gnat-750 a nose job, adding a big upward bulge. The only other major changes were a Rotax 912 engine (upgraded later to the 914), heavier landing gear, and a wing chord that measured 1,100 mm (43.25 inches) at the root. The new craft wasn’t armed, but GA-ASI’s then-president, former fighter pilot and retired rear admiral Thomas J. Cassidy, decided they should call it Predator, the name the company had used for its pre-Karem UAV.

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.


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