General Atomics’ Unmanned Predator Aircraft Goes Domestic with New Missions
In 1994, the Pentagon awarded a contract to develop a new type of unmanned aircraft to a three-year-old company in San Diego. The idea behind the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration was to build a more robust version of a drone that a former Israeli aircraft designer had developed in the 1980s. The result was the Predator, an unmanned surveillance aircraft that has become a mainstay of U.S. military forces, and which is renowned for its role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
San Diego’s General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has been steadily expanding the aircraft’s capabilities ever since, and the Predator’s role has grown from the CIA and U.S. Air Force, to include the Navy and Army. The private company embarked on a new course, though, on Sept. 1, 2005, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security selected the Predator for a new role—as a robot on air patrol above the borders of the United States itself.
Until now, the CBP mission has focused on the U.S. border with Mexico and in the Caribbean. The agency flies Predators from a base in Sierra Vista, AZ, where it maintains four of the unmanned aircraft. But the mission entered a new phase in recent weeks, as CBP gears up to begin Predator air patrols along the North Dakota border with Canada.
“This is a first deployment to get the lay of the land and see how well it operates,” said CBP Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general. He says pilots who fly the aircraft remotely from a new CBP unmanned aircraft operations center in Grand Forks, ND, will have to gain experience, for example, landing a Predator on icy, windswept runways in winter.
Kostelnik told me it’s also trickier for a Predator pilot to detect ice building up on the aircraft’s wings, because they’re not in the cockpit. He says one of the pilots in Arizona who flew a Predator into Hurricane Gustav in September realized ice was building up … Next Page »