America's First Successful UAV Engine Was Secretly Built In A Racing Legend's Garage

Hans Herrmann is, of course, Lucky Hans, the racing legend who, among many other things, won LeMans in 1970. I've spoken with this man in my house, even watched him play Forza for the first time. His grandson plays with my son. And yet I had no idea of his role in the development of the unmanned aerial drone.

Hermann's garage was secretly used as the site for the development of the light, 4-cylinder/4-stroke, liquid-cooled 65 HP engine used to power Amber, the direct predecesor of the Predator unmanned aerial drones in use today.

The connection to Hans Herrmann is quite remarkable. Herrmann was a German driver, driving independently and for Mercedes-Benz, Abarth, and Porsche. He gave Porsche their first LeMans win, and proved the viability of the legendary 917. Herrmann was nicknamed "Lucky Hans" because of his remarkable ability to avoid dying horrifically in wrecks and avoiding accidents. All of these things point to an illustrious racing career, not someone involved in secret weapons development.

The level of involvement of Herrmann's F1 engine team isn't entirely clear, but you could do far worse when developing a light, small, powerful engine than getting the input of a team used to developing and maintaining F1 engines. The data they'd have on engine wear and performance alone would be extremely valuable.

The actual development of the drone was done by Abe Karem, a former Israeli pioneer in unmanned aerial vehicles who built his first, combat-proven drone for the 1973 war within one month. Once he came to the US, he saw the huge, complex drone projects, taking teams of 30 people to fly them (with little success) and thought he could do better. He did, and in his garage, with three guys and a go-kart engine.

That drone, called Albatross, caught the attention of DARPA, who in 1984 commissioned Amber, the drone with the Hans Herrmann-garage engine and the direct predecessor to Predator. Amber proved itself to be so successful (and cheap— the total development costs were less than running the then-current US drone for an hour) that much of the basic design (inverted-V tail to protect pusher propeller, for example) and systems made it into Predator intact, according to Karem:

"Almost all of our subsystems from 1985-89 are still flying in some Predators today including its 27-year-old computer and, with minor changes, the ground station."

So the next time you're desperately running from an airborne robot, take a moment as you crawl under a van to think about the influence of racing legend Hans Herrmann on our brave new world.

(Sources: The Economist, Wikipedia)