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RQ-1 Predator MAE UAV

The Predator Medium Altitude Endurance (MAE) UAV was developed as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) from January 1994 to June 1996. Predator began as one of the very first ACTDs with a contract to General Atomics in San Diego, California. Its first flight was in June of 1994, and it was the first ACTD to actually graduate into an operational system. It went operational with a deployment to support the Bosnian operations in 1996. Since that time Predator was deployed overseas to Europe and supporting Southwest Asia. A good example of the support rendered by the system was during the Kosovo operations were Predators flew over 50 sorties in support of targeting operations for Kosovo.

Predator is a long-dwell UAV operating in excess of 24 hours. That is equivalent to flying 400 nautical miles, loitering for over 14 hours, and then flying home the other 400 nautical miles. It usually operates around 15,000 feet, although it can fly as high as 25,000 feet. The payload is about 450 pounds. Predator is flown manually by a pilot with a stick that controls the aircraft.

The Predator system was composed of three parts: the air vehicle (a derivative of the Gnat 750) with its associated sensors and communications equipment, the ground control station (GCS), and the product or data dissemination system. One Predator system has four air vehicles with sensors and data links, one Ground Control Station (GCS), and one Trojan Spirit II SATCOM system.

The air vehicle is a mid-wing monoplane with a slender fuselage housing the payload and fuel, a high aspect ratio wing, and inverted-V tails. The air vehicle is powered by a four cylinder Rotax engine that requires 100 octane aviation gas.

The sensors include an electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) Versatron Skyball Model 18 with a zoom lens and a spotter lens, and a Westinghouse 783R234 synthetic aperture radar (SAR). The ground control station consists of a pilot position and a payload operator position which are interchangeable, a Data Exploitation, Mission Planning and Communications (DEMPC) position where imagery is annotated and initially exploited, and a SAR workstation. The GCS is housed in a 30 ft x 8 ft x 8 ft commercial van.

The data dissemination had been through the Trojan Spirit II (TS II), a Special Compartmented Information (SCI) satellite communications (SATCOM) system, which allows transmission and receipt of secure voice and National Imagery Transmission Format (NITF) imagery data. The TS II physically consists of two High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) and two trailer-mounted SATCOM antennas. Sensor imagery is disseminated from the Predator ground control station via the Trojan Spirit II SATCOM system using the Joint Deployable Intelligence Support System (JDISS) and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS). Live video is disseminated through the Joint Broadcast System (JBS).

Developed as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) program, the Predator participated in various training exercises, demonstrations, and operational deployments. Three systems were bought as part of the ACTD, totaling twelve air vehicles, three GCSs and three Trojan Spirit IIs. Although the Predator program was initially led by the Army, the Pentagon chose the Air Force as the lead service.

During April and May 1995, Predator, as a proof of concept demonstration, participated in Roving Sands '95, an annual air defense exercise held in the southwestern United States. The success of the Predator during this exercise played a substantial role in the decision to deploy it to the European theater in the summer of 1995.

The first European deployment, Nomad Vigil, was in support of Joint Task Force Provide Promise (JTF PP) with the Predator based in Gjader, Albania. Tasking was provided by the JTF PP headquarters through the Southern Region Joint Operations Intelligence Center (SR JOIC) in Naples, Italy. The required airspace coordination was performed at the NATO Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy. The Predator deployment took place from July through November, 1995. Two aircraft were lost during the EUCOM deployment. It was pulled out after Serb air-defense gunners shot one down and controllers destroyed another in flight because of a malfunction possibly caused by ground fire.

The second European deployment, Nomad Endeavor, was in support of Operation Joint Endeavor with the Predator based in Taszar, Hungary. Tasking was provided by a forward element of US European Command (USEUCOM) through the US National Intelligence Cell (USNIC) at Vicenza, Italy. The operational control of the Predator remained with USEUCOM, but tactical control was exercised by the NATO CAOC. The deployment started in March, 1996.

In February 1996, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) concluded that the Predator system demonstrated military utility and recommended procurement of additional systems for a total of 16 systems (JROCM 010-96). One further system was desired by the Joint Program Office for research and development of user-defined product improvements. Eleven more systems would be necessary to fulfill the validated requirements of 17 Predator systems, including the 13 being funded for approximately $118 million from FY97 through FY02. The Air Force plan called for 13 Predator systems with four aircraft in each system.

The Navy had a Medium Altitude Endurance (MAE) Requirement (CNO Memo of 18 Oct 95, and Naval Requirements Memo of 1 February 1996). The debate over how the Navy would use Predator to fulfill its MAE requirement went on for many months. Finally, a Marinization Study was completed on 1 October 1996. The CNO made the decision to not go forward with a fully marinized Predator system as the solution for the Navy's MAE requirement, but to use data receipt and positional control of the Air Forces Predator systems. On 29 January 1997 a letter to congress was signed by ASN RDA & DARO stating that based on the results of the marinization study that, "The Navy has decided not to develop a launch and recovery capability for the Predator UAV from CV/ CVN and LHA/ LHD class ships."

The JROC also identified a number of required system upgrades. The upgrades would be retrofitted as pre-planned product improvements, dependent on additional funding. A de-icing capability, a UHF radio link on the air vehicle and Mode IV IFF transponders were the first priority upgrades and were expected to be retrofitted prior to the full-rate production decision.

The Aeronautical Systems Center Reconnaissance Systems Program Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), Ohio had contracted with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated (GA-ASI) of San Diego, California to develop capabilities required to demonstrate the expansion of line-of-sight (LOS) networks to beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) operations using a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) as a communications relay and gateway, providing data to disparate battlefield units. This three-year, three-phase effort would be accomplished as a cooperative project between the United Kingdom and US Government. The program would be executed in three phases. The phases will consist of: 1) Demonstrating BLOS by transmitting Forward Air Control (FAC) 9-line Close Air Support (CAS) message and/or other targeting data through the UAV to the strike aircraft; 2) Demonstrating BLOS operation of an IDM based network, linking disparate aircraft through the UAV communications node and LOS operations from aircraft to aircraft (This demonstration included ground based units and direct broadcast of data; i.e., 9-line, video, etc., from the UAV to these units); and 3) Expanding the network architecture developed in Phase II, demonstrating BLOS integration of multiple network types, including JTIDS and wide bandwidth communications Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL).

Predator evolved a good deal since the ACTD aircraft, with upgraded engines and upgraded sensors. There were still a few ACTD aircraft in the inventory, but most of the aircraft have progressed beyond that.

In the the Fiscal 2017 budget request, the Air Force planned to phase out the Predator completely by the end of 2018, focusing on buying new Reapers to replace them, as well as buying the extended-range upgrade kit for nearly the entire fleet of MQ-9s.

Predator Losses

Predator was bought as a system consisting of four air vehicles, the ground-control stations and the satellite gear required. As of 2001 the Air Force was buying 12 systems, with the last two of those to be delivered by early 2002.

In addition to buying systems, the Air Force bought attrition vehicles. As of 31 October 2001 the Air Force had received a total of 68 air vehicles, and had lost 19 due to mishaps or losses over enemy territory, including four over enemy territory in Kosovo.

At least seven Predators observing Iraq or Afghanistan crashed or were shot down over the six month period ending in January 2002. That meant that roughly one of every eight Predators in the Air Force inventory had been destroyed. At least nine Air Force Predators and one CIA drone crashed during missions in Afghanistan or Iraq in the thirteen months following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

As of late 2002 the Air Force had about 50 Predators in service, with only a few equipped to launch the HELLFIRE missile. The CIA had a small number of the armed drones. Newer versions of the Predator, at $4.5 million each, were being produced at a rate of about two aircraft a month.

The FY03 budget request called for spending $158 million to buy 22 more Predators and upgrade existing ones.

A good number of them were lost due to operator error, since it was hard to land the UAV. The operator had the camera pointing out the front of the plane, but lost a lot of situational awareness that a normal pilot would have of where the ground is and what the attitude of the aircraft is.

Air Force investigators determined that human error caused an RQ-1 Predator aircraft to crash 17 September 2003 at a classified forward-operating location in Southwest Asia. The loss was estimated at $3.2 million. The aircraft was assigned to the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. According to an Air Combat Command accident investigation report, the primary cause of the accident was that the pilot unintentionally flew the aircraft into a hazardous cloud. The pilot lost communication with the aircraft several times, but was able to re-establish communication twice. However, the aircraft failed to respond to the pilot's commands, indicating the flight control computers were disabled by the hazardous weather conditions.

A failed pilot bearing caused an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to crash in the US Central Command area of responsibility 30 March 2005. The Predator, assigned to the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, was performing an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission when the propeller lost forward thrust and caused the aircraft to crash. The aircraft was severely damaged on impact. Because of the remote location of the crash, key components were removed and the remainder of the aircraft was destroyed. The loss was valued at about $4.4 million. There was no other damage to government or private property.

The pilot bearing, located within the propeller shaft, provides radial support for the push-pull shaft and allows the propeller shaft to spin freely around a fixed quill shaft. The investigation determined long and progressive failure of the pilot bearing caused the adapter, which holds the quill shaft in place, to shear. Once the adapter sheared, the quill shaft then unscrewed itself from the variable pitch propeller servo and drove the propellers to an extreme reverse pitch, causing the aircraft to endure severe drag and a high rate of descent.

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