The Predator

While reading the book Predator by Richard Whittle, a large number of issues that could have caused the Predator to fail presented themselves.  Among these is the attitude Abe Karem had when working with other team members and constant push back from various outside forces beyond his control.

Abe was born to a Jewish family in Baghdad in the late 30’s and began trying to learn more about technology at a young age, starting with a light switch in his dad’s room.  By his early teens, he was building model aircraft and had a particular interest in gliders.  He learned many things about how planes work during this period, including the use of a deep stall to gently land a glider.  This concept was used later in his designs of the Albatross and Predator.

After a period of moving between countries due to war breaking out in the region, Abe started working for the government-owned Israel Aircraft Industries as the Director of Preliminary Design.  It was at this point that some of his more defining characteristics would surface, making him a very difficult person to manage.  He would refuse to work with anyone who he thought wasn’t above average intelligence.  He also had a habit of going over other people’s heads, often preferring to work directly with the higher ups instead of talking to the individuals directly above him.  These traits would later play a large role in how he handled business interactions in the future.

While working at IAI, Abe was given a project by one of his friends, a pilot, to develop a decoy drone to draw missile fire away from the manned aircraft.  This sparked his interest in the concept of using an unmanned aircraft in a military operation and in the mid 70’s he decided to leave IAI to pursue the idea despite pressure from his superiors.  A friend later told him that if he were to build an unmanned aircraft, it would be a helicopter to avoid a political turf war between the air force and army.  He developed an autonomous helicopter design for the Army to use, but the armed forces refused to buy it.  He redesigned it a total of 9 times before deciding to move on.  The political influence of IAI proved to be too strong and prevented Abe from making a sale.  Having failed to get a contract in Israel, he decided to emigrate to the US to try his luck there.

While Abe’s attitude played a critical role in how people interacted with him, there were a number of outside forces that could have caused the program to fail.  In the mid 80’s, the US military was looking to invest more money in drone technology for remote reconnaissance after a large terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon killed 241 US servicemen.  The US military was wanting the new technology and after seeing the Israeli Mastiff flying decided to develop its own version.  For nearly a decade the Army had been funding the Aquila, a drone that could carry a laser designator and TV camera.  It was at this time that Abe got funding to develop the Amber through DARPA with the Navy taking the lead.  During this period, Abe was developing the Amber while also trying to get Leading Systems out of his garage.  He also started developing the smaller version, the Gnat 750, a drone intended for use in training new pilots and as a target drone.  The company was growing and the Cold War was just starting.

Shortly after Leading Systems had been given funding through DARPA, a large change in political structure began to take place due to the Aquila.  The Army made a total of 105 flights and only had 7 successful missions on the platform.  Many accounts state that the failure of the platform was largely caused by heavy oversight requiring more features to be added and increasing the weight significantly over what the original designers planned for.  To make matters worse, the Aquila was one of the most heavily funded drones of the time, totaling to $1.2 billion.  In an attempt to reduce the excess spending on failing technologies, Congress cut the military funding of drones in half from $103 million to $52.6 million.  The legislation also put a freeze on all spending on drone technologies.  Abe was now worried that he would lose the funding for the Amber.

To make matters worse, Abe and his overseer, Joseph Thomas, were constantly at odds.  Thomas always thought that Abe spent money too freely and development should be frozen for production while Abe thought he should improve the design as much as possible before production began.  Abe’s previous overseer even noted that he was concerned the project would be quickly canceled because nobody would put up with Abe.  Intending to keep the company alive, Abe decided to develop the Gnat 750 for foreign exports if the US decided to cancel their contracts.

As Leading Systems slowly ran out of money, Abe was forced to sign a teaming agreement with Hughes Aircraft Company to produce the Amber.  Leading Systems would develop the platform and Hughes would manufacture it if they won a contract.  Unfortunately, they never did win the contract and, per their agreement, Hughes foreclosed on Leading Systems.

Now that Hughes had Leading Systems in their possession, they had no further interest in drones.  The market for the technology had disappeared following the Aquila and Hughes wanted to sell the company.  Fortunately, the Blues Brothers who had recently come to own General Atomics, were looking to buy and develop a drone and the Amber fit the bill.  General Atomics purchased Leading Systems and added a team to handle discussions with the defense department to shield Abe from the public.  This effectively saved the company and set the stage for the upcoming Predator.

The success of the Predator can’t be disputed but it had many opportunities to fail along the way.  Ultimately, Abram made the best of what options he had available to him and continued working as hard as possible to ensure the success of his dream.  In the UAS industry, many other systems and companies have similar stories where an individual or team will do everything they can to succeed.  The book also shows how maintaining positive relationships with as many people as possible is important for success.

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