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As the Air Force works to retire its fleet of MQ-1 Predators, Air Force Magazine spoke with the man whose engineering feats of the 1970s and 1980s first made unmanned systems reliable.

Abraham Karem, born in Baghdad and raised in Israel, came to the United States in 1977. Within four years he had successfully demonstrated the unmanned aerial systems technology that would transform the way the US military gathers data and strikes targets around the world. His Albatross and Amber drones were the direct forerunners of the Predator system. And the story of their birth also has relevance for the problem of innovation within defense acquisition.

Karem gained early experience “developing fighters and fighter systems in Israel,” he told Air Force Magazine. The first UAV he developed was a “glide decoy,” which he and a team of engineers built “within a month” and deployed during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. “It was very successful,” Karem said.

When he arrived in the US four years later, “they had UAVs flying two hours” only before crashing, Karem said. “I wanted them to fly 40 hours.” From his garage in the Hacienda Heights suburb of Los Angeles, Karem worked with a three-person team to develop a better system. The first key to his breakthrough was the use of small, inexpensive trainer systems that replicated the full-scale UAV they were building.

Karem had found that a major problem with past UAV systems was operator error—the systems were difficult to fly and required a whole new set of protocols. He wanted to develop “standard procedures” for flying his drone, so he teamed up with Jack Hertenstein, an electrical engineer and—perhaps more importantly—a remote-control airplane hobbyist. Together, they started flying the trainers, which cost $10,000 each, to see what they could learn about piloting the full, $300,000 prototype.

“We crashed some of them and we learned not to crash,” Karem said of his early efforts. By the time they were building devoted trainers, however, they realized just how much progress they had made. “We built ten of them assuming we were going to crash all of them,” he said, “but we crashed only one.” By 1981, Karem’s team was flying the full prototype, called Albatross, for 56 hours at a time and also catching the attention of DARPA, which gave him funding to develop the technology further.

Karem succeeded in UAV technology where others didn’t, he said, in part because the focus of the big defense contractors was directed elsewhere—the Apollo program, the B-2, the F-22, and commercial projects. His intense focus on the problem of unmanned systems meant he was able to accomplish more than the defense giants had “in 18 years of being funded at $4.4 billion.”

By 1987, the Army and Navy were interested in buying as many as 200 of Karem’s drones because of their demonstrated reliability and affordability.  The DARPA-funded model, called Amber, cost only $350,000. But changes made by Congress to the program’s focus put Amber at a disadvantage, and Karem never received a contract. Short of funds, he sold Amber to Hughes Aircraft, which then sold it to General Atomics.

In 1994, General Atomics was awarded a contract to produce the Gnat-750, a scaled-down version of the Amber. Then-CIA Director Jim Woolsey bought two of them to fly over Bosnia on reconnaissance missions. The Gnat-750 performed its intelligence,surveillance, and reconnaissance missions well, and it was soon renamed Predator even before it began carrying munitions. “I was not really thinking about arming UAVs,” at the beginning, Karem said, and neither was the military. Hellfire missiles wouldn’t be added to the Predator until 2001.

Karem said he developed his first UAVs for ISR because that’s what the moment demanded. In the Cold War, NATO allies faced a highly-developed adversary that required preparation through heavy airpower. “We had tons of shooters, we did not need shooters. What we needed was surveillance and targeting and laser designation.”

Still, he has no regrets about the eventual arming of the Predator. “Wars are destructive,” Karem said, and the goal is “to win with the minimum casualties to the other side, both us and them. And I think armed UAVs being able to…look at the targets for a long time and throw a small missile, can do that better than an F-16 coming with a 2,000-pound bomb.”

But war continues to evolve, and the return of great powers in Russia and China has Karem reconsidering the best uses of drones. “If you would ever need to be in a tactical war with a near-peer,” he said, “again you’ll have tons of shooters and I don’t see a reason…for armed UAVs.”

Today, the Air Force is working to retire the Predator, while the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper carry the remotely piloted aircraft mission forward. Holloman AFB, N.M., ended its MQ-1 mission in late February, and the service plans to retire the whole fleet by 2018. At the end of the Predator’s service life, Karem is thinking about civilian applications for unmanned technology. “UAVs are not for defense only, and it could be a lot more important for the civilians.”

But the Predator legacy, and the journey of discovery that led Karem to building it, also carries a lesson for defense acquisition, where Karem thinks innovation is noticeably lacking. “In the last few years,” he said, “DOD was asking 'how can we copy the success of Silicon Valley and work with their best innovators?'” But Karem points back to a time in the 1930s when “defense aero was a very competitive, very fast-​reacting, Silicon Valley-like operation.” He remembers a time when “you did not need to learn from Silicon Valley. You taught Silicon Valley.”

Part of the problem, he said, is the “consolidation of the industry” into a handful of big companies that each “have their own protective niche.” In such a limited market landscape, Karem said, “naturally innovations will die.” Defense companies and their stockholders, he said, see smaller profit margins in a less competitive environment and so are unwilling to accept the greater risk that would lead to greater innovations.

To turn the situation around, “we need to find a way back to risk-taking,” Karem said. Among other benefits, this will lead to greater speed in technology development. For Karem, this outcome is not merely academic. “China is putting aircraft like fighters, complete aircraft, in production in four years,” he said. They are only able to achieve these speeds because “they’re grabbing a lot of our technology,” Karem said. But still, “this was our standard,” once upon a time.

While Karem doesn’t recommend that every new defense technology begin with a small team in a garage like the Albatross, he did say that “we need to create and re-introduce competition at the very early state of a new aircraft program.” And that should include putting incumbent defense giants on notice, he thinks. “As big as Apple is, it’s leaning forward and taking risks because they are scared that somebody will unseat them,” he said. “That does not exist [for] Boeing military.”