The Dronefather

This is the opening of an interesting article in this week’s print edition of The Economist. It’s about part of the story behind the USA’s adoption and widespread use of military drones:

Abe Karem created the robotic plane that transformed the way modern warfare is waged—and continues to pioneer other airborne innovations

“I WAS not the guy who put missiles on the Predator,” says Abe Karem, the aerospace engineer behind America’s most successful and most feared military drone. “I just wanted UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to perform to the same standards of safety, reliability and performance as manned aircraft.”

When Mr Karem arrived in America from Israel in 1977, the Pentagon had almost given up on robotic planes. At the time its most promising UAV, the Aquila, needed 30 people to launch it, flew for just minutes at a time and crashed on average every 20 flight hours. “It was insanity itself,” says Mr Karem. “It was obvious to me they were going to crash because they had 30 people doing something that could be done better by three.”

Mr Karem founded a company, Leading Systems, in the garage of his Los Angeles home and began work on a drone that would ultimately transform the way America wages war. It was built in an intentionally low-tech manner, using plywood, home-made fibreglass and a two-stroke engine of the kind normally found in go-karts. “I wanted to prove that performance is largely a result of inspired design and highly optimised and integrated subsystems, not the application of the most advanced technology,” he says.

Critically the drone, code-named Albatross, was developed by a handful of engineers, and operated by a team of just three. “Doing things with the absolute smallest team increases the chance that you’re not going to screw up,” says Mr Karem. “Nothing replaces highly talented people—white-hot passionate thinkers in love with doing challenging things.” After a flight test during which Albatross remained aloft for 56 hours, DARPA, the research arm of America’s armed forces, funded Mr Karem to scale it up into a more capable drone called Amber. It, in turn, evolved into the modern Predator.

An Israeli success story.

Unfortunately, I think the full article is behind a paywall. Karem was only one player, and although the article is a bit of a promotion of his perspective, there’s plenty to inform the interested reader. For example, his comments about – effectively – too many cooks spoiling the broth, ring oh so true.