The Albatross, as it was called, was transported to the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where it demonstrated the ability to stay aloft safely for up to 56 hours — a very, very long time in what was then the crash-prone world of drones.
Three iterations and more than a decade of development later, Karem’s modest-looking drone became the Predator, the lethal, remotely piloted machine that can circle above the enemy for nearly a day before controllers thousands of miles away in the southwestern United States launch Hellfire missiles toward targets they are watching on video screens.
The emergence of hunter-killer and surveillance drones as revolutionary new weapons in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in counterterrorism operations in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry, much of it centered in Southern California, once the engine of Cold War military aviation.
Over the next 10 years, the Pentagon plans to purchase more than 700 medium- and large-size drones at a cost of nearly $40 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office study. Thousands more mini-drones will be fitted in the backpacks of soldiers so they can hand-launch them in minutes to look over the next hill or dive-bomb opposing forces.
This booming sector has its roots in the often unsung persistence of engineering dreamers who worked on the technology of unmanned aviation when the military establishment and most major defense contractors had little or no interest in it. Innovators such as Karem were often sustained by grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a handful of early believers, including the CIA.
Karem said he imagined his drones involved in a “tactical conflict with the Warsaw Pact, be it on the plains of Germany or as part of our Navy and Marines.” He had to sell his company, and with it the prototype of the Predator, long before it became the icon of a new kind of warfare.
“I did not envision the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of warfare with non-state adversaries,” said Karem, an aeronautical engineer who served for nine years in the Israeli air force before settling in the United States in 1977.
In the past decade, drones have become an integral part of U.S. military doctrine — so much so that it is difficult to recall how marginal they once seemed. The military had less than 200 drones the day before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; today it has more than 7,000, including mini-drones.
Before Sept. 11, drones weren’t “on the road map,” said Tim Conver, chairman and chief executive of AeroVironment, which builds close-in surveillance drones for the military. “It wasn’t something that [the Defense Department] had said: ‘We need this. Let’s build a program around this.’ ”