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 on the wings only after he had to repeatedly increase the throttle to maintain a constant altitude.
I also checked in with GA Aeronautical Systems to hear the latest on new front in Predator’s domestic service. “They’re finding more and more uses for the airplane,” says Tom Cassidy, president of the company’s Aircraft Systems Group. He told me yesterday that Predators have been flying over wildfires for NASA and gathering scientific data for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, flew a Predator into a hurricane for the first time in September to survey flood levees, support search and rescue operations, and to inspect oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. “So we’ve expanded this thing quite a bit,” Cassidy says.
The company also keeps updating the drone’s surveillance equipment. Cassidy says the second-generation Predator Bs are now equipped with high-definition TV cameras, electro-optics, and an advanced synthetic aperture radar made by General Atomics that can penetrate smoke and cloud cover. Cassidy says the company also has developed a new 360-degree maritime radar for a Predator specially modified for open-ocean surveillance, which the CBP will get for offshore duty.
From their new base in Grand Forks, CBP personnel will operate the remotely piloted MQ-9 Predator B, which can remain aloft for more than 18 hours at altitudes up to 50,000 feet. Kostelnik says the aircraft’s infrared sensors should work well for detecting people in the cold climate, but he’s less sure how well the radar can see through heavily forested areas. “Those are the things that you have to go up and explore,” he says.
The CBP’s lone Predator in North Dakota is intended to fly a remote, 230-mile stretch of the US-Canadian border. Kostelnik says the sparsely populated region was chosen so flight operations can be worked out with lower risk to civilians, and because North Dakota’s political leadership and populace are strongly supportive of CBP’s border control mission.
“I oversee the operation of 280 aircraft of 22 different kinds,” Kostelnik says. “But I have no other single aircraft that can do what the Predator can do.”