Predator’s ancestor has Hollywood roots

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Southern California’s unmanned aircraft legacy shares deep roots with another of the region’s economic mainstays — Hollywood.

One of the first pioneers to bridge the two worlds was Reginald Denny, a British actor during the silent era who starred as a swashbuckling leading man in steamy romantic films such as “The Price of Possession” and “Tropical Love.”

A former World War I fighter pilot, Denny kept his passion for flight alive by running a model plane shop on Hollywood Boulevard in the 1930s, where he sold radio-controlled aircraft.

His hobby blossomed into a multimillion-dollar business with the outbreak of World War II. The U.S. Army bought his “Dennyplanes” — built at a San Fernando Valley factory — as flying targets to train anti-aircraft gunners.

Eventually the military got the idea to strap cameras to model planes and use them for more complex reconnaissance missions. In the early days, of course, they couldn’t provide real-time images. Film could be processed and images recovered only after the planes returned to base.

The breakthrough would come with the development of satellites. With early radio communication, a plane had to be in a so-called line-of-sight position to maintain contact with its base. If it flew behind a mountain, contact with the controller was broken (and the plane likely lost). Satellites enabled drones to be controlled anywhere on the planet.

After decades of slow progress, a key Pentagon contract was awarded in 1984 to a small Irvine company that had been quietly developing a high-endurance reconnaissance plane using a technology that would ultimately become ubiquitous.

Abraham Karem, a former engineering officer in the Israeli air force, had immigrated to the U.S. in 1977 and started his aircraft business, Leading Systems Inc., in his three-car garage in Hacienda Heights with money from family members.

He concluded that unmanned aircraft had an abysmal crash record because they were too heavy and lacked a sophisticated flight control system.

Rather than fashioning his aircraft’s frame from metal or wood, Karem used strong, light, state-of-the-art composites made from carbon fibers. By 1988, Karem’s plane, which he named Amber, could fly at an altitude of 28,000 feet for about 40 hours at a time. But the end of the Cold War brought dramatic cuts in the U.S. defense budget, and funding for Amber was killed in 1990.

Karem’s company, its future in doubt, was sold first to Hughes Aircraft, then to its present owner, nuclear energy company General Atomics, in 1990. General Atomics saw the potential in drones and created a separate aeronautical division to develop a larger version of Amber.

With the takeover, Amber would also get a new name, one that might be more appealing to the armed forces. The machine with the bulbous nose and plank-like wings ultimately became the Predator.