The Predator Drone: A Pioneering Force in Modern Warfare

By: Robert Valdes & Desiree Bowie  | 
Israeli Air Force Heron TP Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for reconnaissance, Tel Nof Air Base, Israel.
UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) allow military personnel to engage in combat and reconnaissance while keeping pilots miles away from the thick of combat. Riccardo Niccoli/Stocktrek Image / Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

Military commanders use tactics and strategy in combat to inflict as much damage on the enemy while trying to risk as few personnel and resources as possible. This principle was at the heart of the development of the RQ-1 and MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, commonly referred to as Predator drones.

These high-tech aircraft — controlled by a crew at a ground control system miles away from the dangers of combat — were capable of reconnaissance, combat and support roles in the hairiest of battles. In a worst-case scenario, if the Predator drone was lost in battle, military personnel could simply "crack another one out of the box" and have it up in the air shortly — and that's without the trauma of casualties or prisoners normally associated with an aircraft going down.


Let's take a look at the Predator UAV's flight system, sensors, weapons and crew, and how the military used these drones to keep personnel safer both in the air and on land.

What Was the Predator Drone?

The Predator drone, officially known as the MQ-1 Predator, was an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by General Atomics. The remotely piloted aircraft was predominantly used by the United States Air Force, Navy and other allied forces for various purposes, primarily focused on reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.

One of its defining features was remote operation. The remotely piloted aircraft systems were operated from ground control stations, allowing operators to pilot and manage the drone from a safe location, often thousands of miles away from where the aircraft was physically located.


Notably, the drone gained significant recognition for its involvement in armed, unmanned aerial missions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early aughts.

The drone's primary mission was to gather intelligence through surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. Equipped with advanced cameras and sensors, the Predator could provide real-time imagery and data to military personnel on the ground. Some variants, like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, were armed with missiles and other munitions, enabling them to conduct precision strikes against ground targets.

The Predator was also known for its ability to remain airborne for long durations, making it suitable for surveillance missions that required extended loitering times. The aircraft was versatile, too, and filled various roles, including border security, counter-terrorism efforts and support for ground troops in conflict zones.

Beyond military applications, it also found use in civilian contexts, such as border surveillance, disaster response and environmental monitoring.

After decades of service, the Predator fleet was officially retired in 2018. It was succeeded by more advanced UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper, which offer similar capabilities but with improved performance and weaponry.


Types of Predator Drones

These Predator aircraft have been used by the United States and its allies for a wide range of military and security applications, including intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeted strikes.

  1. MQ-1 Predator: The original Predator drone was developed for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. It was equipped with cameras and sensors and could be armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles for precision strikes. The MQ-1 Predator has been retired from active service.
  2. MQ-1B Predator: This upgraded version of the original MQ-1 featured improved avionics and communication systems. It was used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and armed with Hellfire missiles. The MQ-1B Predator has been retired.
  3. MQ-1C Gray Eagle: This larger and more advanced variant of the Predator was designed for longer endurance and increased payload capacity. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle has been used for a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance, surveillance and combat operations.
  4. MQ-9 Reaper: Also known as the Predator B, the Reaper is a larger and more capable successor to the MQ-1 Predator. It is armed with a variety of munitions, including Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs.
  5. MQ-9B SkyGuardian: A further development of the MQ-9 Reaper, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian is designed with enhanced endurance and autonomous capabilities. It is intended for both military and civilian applications, including border surveillance, maritime patrol and disaster response.
  6. SeaGuardian: Based on the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, the SeaGuardian is designed for maritime surveillance and patrol missions, making it suitable for monitoring coastal regions and maritime borders.
  7. The MQ-20 Avenger: A jet-powered stealthy drone, unlike the propeller-driven earlier Predator variants. The Avenger offers greater speed and stealth capabilities, making it suitable for both reconnaissance and strike missions.


Under the Hood

The Predator UAV, also known as the MQ-1 Predator, was a medium-altitude, long-range aircraft that operated much like any other small plane.

Let's take a look under the retired Predator drone's hood. A Rotax 914, four-cylinder, four-stroke, 101-horsepower engine — the same engine type commonly used on snowmobiles — turned the main drive shaft. The drive shaft rotated the Predator's two-blade, variable-pitch pusher propeller.

The rear-mounted propeller provided both drive and lift. The remote pilot altered the pitch of the blades to increase or decrease the altitude of the plane, which could reach speeds of up to 135 mph (120 kts).


Additional lift provided by the aircraft's 48.7-foot (14.8-meter) wingspan allowed the Predator to reach altitudes of up to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The slender fuselage and inverted-V tails helped the aircraft with stability, and a single rudder housed beneath the propeller steered the craft.

The fuselage of the Predator was a mixture of carbon and quartz fibers blended in a composite with Kevlar. Underneath the fuselage, the airframe was supported by a Nomex, foam and wood laminate that was pressed together in layers.

Between each layer of laminate, a sturdy fabric was sandwiched in to provide insulation to internal components. The rib work of the structure was built from a carbon/glass fiber tape and aluminum. The sensor housing and wheels were also aluminum.

The edges of the wings were titanium and dotted with microscopic weeping holes that allowed an ethylene glycol solution to seep out of internal reservoirs and breakdown ice that formed on the wings during flight.

Mechanical Systems

The Predator UAV used run-of-the-mill mechanical systems. A 3-kilowatt starter/alternator supplied the craft's electronics with power; this was supplemented with auxiliary battery power. Forward and aft fuel tanks housed rubberized fuel bladders that were easy to fill through gas caps located at the top of the fuselage.

An operator started the engine by attaching the umbilical cord of a Starter/Ground Power Cart to the aircraft's starter-control connector, located in the ground panel on the outside of the plane. An operator stopped the engine by hitting a kill switch just behind one of the wings on the side of the plane.

For the Engine

  • The Predator's two fuel tanks combined carried up to 600 pounds (272 kg) of 95-octane to 100-octane reciprocating aircraft engine fuel.
  • The Predator used 7.6 liters (2 gallons) of standard motor oil for lubrication.
  • In addition to venting, conventional automotive antifreeze was used to cool the engine.
  • Two 8-pound (3.6-kg), 14-amp-hour Ni-Cad battery packs were housed in the fuselage for backup power in case the engine or alternator failed.


A Look Inside the Predator

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Image courtesy AFCESA

As an aircraft, the Predator UAV was little more than a super-fancy, remote-controlled plane. But this simple design lent itself well to the Predator's intended functions. Below, check out the placement of components:

  1. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Antenna
  2. Inertial Navigation System/GPS
  3. Ku-Band Satellite Communications Antenna
  4. Video Cassette Recorder
  5. GPS Antennas (Left and Right)
  6. APX-100 Identification Friend or Foe Transponder
  7. Ku-Band Satellite Communications Sensor Processor Modem Assembly
  8. C-Band Upper Omnidirectional Antenna Bracket
  9. Forward Fuel Cell Assembly
  10. Aft Fuel Cell Assembly
  11. Accessory Bay
  12. Engine Cooling Fan
  13. Oil Cooler/Radiator
  14. 914F Engine
  15. Tail Servo (Left and Right)
  16. Battery Assembly #2
  17. Power Supply
  18. Battery Assembly #1
  19. Aft Equipment Bay Tray
  20. Secondary Control Module
  21. Synthetic Aperture Radar Processor/AGM-114 Electronics Assembly
  22. Primary Control Module
  23. Front Bay Avionics Tray
  24. ARC-210 Receiver/Transmitter
  25. Flight Sensor Unit
  26. Video Encoder
  27. De-ice Controller
  28. Electro-Optical/Infrared Sensor/AN/AAS-52(V)1 Electronics Assembly
  29. Front Bay Payload Tray
  30. Ice Detector
  31. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Receiver/Transmitter
  32. Nose Camera Assembly

In the next sections, we'll see how this unassuming aircraft used its special features to tilt the balance of combat.


Spy in the Sky

The RQ-1 used a set of nose cameras to "see" on missions.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

The RQ-1 was the reconnaissance version of the Predator UAV. The letter "R" is the U.S. Defense Department signature for an aircraft designated for reconnaissance. "Q" is a designation for unmanned or automated weapons or vehicles.

The simple and lightweight design of the Predator's fuselage allowed it to carry a payload of up to 450 pounds (204 kg) in addition to the weight of its 100-gallon (378.5-liter) fuel tank.


This large fuel tank and the nice gas mileage afforded by the Predator's light weight were great assets for a reconnaissance aircraft. The Predator could stay in the air monitoring enemy positions for up to 24 hours, fully loaded.

The RQ-1 also featured some incredibly sophisticated monitoring equipment.

An airman cleans the lens pilots used to fly the MQ-1 Predator.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force
  • Full-color nose camera that the pilot used primarily to navigate the craft
  • Variable aperture camera (similar to a traditional TV camera) that functioned as the Predator's main set of "eyes"
  • Variable aperture infrared camera for low-light and night viewing
  • Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for seeing through haze, clouds or smoke

Every camera in the plane's forward bank could produce full-motion video and still-frame radar images.

The RQ-1 gave real-time imagery of the enemy position to a command post well before the first troops or vehicles arrived. This kind of information allowed field commanders to make quick and informed decisions about troop deployment, movements and enemy capabilities.

Of course, the greatest advantage of using the Predator was that it had all the advantages of a traditional reconnaissance sortie without ever exposing the pilot to a hostile environment.


In Battle

A Predator MQ-1 comes in for a landing after firing one of its Hellfire Missiles.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

The only thing better than having a robotic airplane assist forces in making decisions about how to fight a battle is to have a robotic airplane actually fight the battle for you.

That is where the Predator UAV MQ-1 Hunter/Killer came into play — replacing the camera array with the Multispectral Targeting System (MTS) and loading the Predator with two Hellfire missiles transformed this battlefield spotter into a deadly automated combatant.


The "M" in MQ-1 is the Defense Department designation for multipurpose aircraft; by adding the MTS and Hellfire missiles to the Predator, it truly became a multifunctional battle aircraft.

The MTS included the AGM-114 Hellfire missile targeting system, electro-optical infrared system, laser designator and laser illuminator. All of these components gave the Predator and its operators multiple ways to acquire a target in any combat environment.

The Predator fired a laser or infrared beam from the MTS ball located near the nose of the plane. This laser was used in two ways:

  • The beam would land on the target and pulse to attract the laser seekers at the end of each Hellfire missile.
  • The on-board computer used the beam to make calculations about trajectory and distance.

Sensors bundled in the MTS also calculated wind speed, direction and other battlefield variables to gather all of this data into a firing solution. This process was known as "painting the target."

Once a target was painted, the MQ-1 could unleash its own missiles to destroy the target or send the firing solution to other aircraft or ground forces so they could destroy it.


Predator Utility

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Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

The battlefield effectiveness of the MQ-1 was tested in several conflicts, including those in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Yemen.

The Predators have flown into combat alongside manned warplanes, provided air support to ground forces and attacked areas where enemy air defenses were not fully suppressed.


They could also be used in areas traditionally too dangerous to send in manned aircraft, such as open ocean environments or biologically or chemically contaminated environments. And even loaded with the MTS, the Predator MQ-1 was capable of effective battlefield reconnaissance.

Perhaps the most infamous use for the combat version of the Predator was in stealthy aerial assassinations.

On February 7, 2002, the CIA used an armed Predator to attack and destroy a convoy of SUVs transporting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. On November 3, 2002, the CIA used a Predator to launch a Hellfire missile into a car in Yemen, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, the al-Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole.

Though this application of the Predator was rare, none of these missions would have been possible using conventional methods, without risking the lives of U.S. troops.


Behind the Wheel

Predator UAV remote pilot station
Copyright © 2003 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, "The Predator [was] a system, not just an aircraft." This is because of the unique way the Predators were deployed and controlled.

A fully operational system consisted of four Predators (with sensors), a ground control station (GCS) that houses the pilots and sensor operators and a Predator primary satellite-link communication suite.


On the ground, there were the techs and support personnel normally associated with aircraft. The whole show took about 82 personnel to run successfully. This fully integrated team was capable of using the four aircraft for 24-hour surveillance within a 400-nautical-mile radius of the ground control station.

The Predator could run autonomously, executing simple missions such as reconnaissance on a program, or under the control of a crew. The crew of a single Predator UAV consisted of one pilot and two sensor operators. The pilot drove the aircraft using a standard flight stick and associated controls that transmitted commands over a C-Band line-of-sight data link.

When operations were beyond the range of the C-Band, a Ku-Band satellite link was used to relay commands and responses between a satellite and the aircraft. Onboard, the aircraft received orders via an L-3 Com satellite data link system. The pilots and crews used the images and radar received from the aircraft to make decisions about controlling the plane.

Predator aviators have described piloting the aircraft as flying an airplane while looking through a straw. This was quite a change from driving a conventional aircraft from the cockpit. Predator pilots had to rely on the onboard cameras to see what was going on around the plane. For the crew, it was a trade-off between the disadvantage of limited visibility and the definite plus of personal safety.

Predator aviators described piloting the aircraft as flying an airplane while looking through a straw.
Copyright © 2003 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.


On the Road

A dissembled Predator loaded into a "coffin" for transport.
© 2003 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

One of the greatest things about the Predator system was that the whole thing was fully transportable. The aircraft could be broken down into six pieces and transported in a huge crate called the coffin, which contained:

  • The fuselage
  • Wings
  • Tail surfaces
  • Landing gear
  • The propulsion system
  • Two payload/avionics bays

The largest component in the system was the GCS, which had wheels that allowed it to be rolled onto transports. The Predator primary satellite link consisted of a 20-foot (6.1-meter) satellite dish and support equipment, which could also be broken down.


The coffin, GCS and satellite link all fit in the cargo hold of a C-130 Hercules or C-141 Starlifter, which is how they were moved around from mission to mission. Once on site, a crew of four could reassemble a single Predator in under eight hours.

The flexibility and ease of transport designed into the system allowed personnel to rapidly deploy an entire four-aircraft Predator system anywhere in the world.


The Future

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Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

In 2018, the U.S. military made the strategic decision to retire the aging MQ-1 Predator drones due to technological advancements and evolving mission requirements. This transition was marked by the introduction of the MQ-9 Reaper, signifying a significant leap in UAV performance.

The MQ-9 Reaper made its debut in the early 2000s, representing a remarkable improvement over its predecessor. It boasts a higher maximum altitude, extended endurance and a larger payload capacity, equipping it to carry a broader array of sensors and munitions for a wide range of mission profiles.

Most notably, the Reaper features enhanced firepower, capable of deploying a variety of munitions, including Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs, making it a versatile platform for both intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and combat missions.

With its extended operational range, the Reaper can cover vast areas and maintain station for prolonged periods, a pivotal capability for ISR and strike missions. The inclusion of advanced communication systems further enhanced connectivity with ground stations and other assets. Moreover, select Reaper variants are designed with stealth features, enhancing their survivability in hostile environments.

Several Reaper variants were developed to cater to specific mission requirements. Among these are the MQ-9A Reaper, the initial armed version, and the MQ-9B Reaper, featuring enhanced endurance and autonomous capabilities. Additionally, the MQ-9 SeaGuardian variant was adapted for maritime surveillance and patrol tasks, including coastal and maritime border monitoring.

The retirement and replacement of the MQ-1 Predators was driven by the imperative to adapt to emerging threats and evolving demands of modern warfare. While the MQ-1 Predators played a crucial role in the early era of UAV technology, the MQ-9 Reaper's substantial technological advancements in performance and firepower rendered it a more versatile and capable platform for contemporary military operations.

With the proliferation of remotely operated and automated combat units, the trend in military technology seems to be moving toward missions carried out by automated warriors, with the flesh-and-blood controllers battling safely from behind computer terminals.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.