General Atomics Unveils Enhanced Drone Cockpit


FARNBOROUGH, England — Drone-maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. unveiled an enhanced cockpit station featuring high-definition touch screens, a video game-like controller, and keyboard for chat and other messaging functions.

The San Diego-based maker of the Predator family of military drones demonstrated the new ground control station to attendees and potential customers this week at the Farnborough International Air Show outside London.

The technology, which has been in development for several years, makes it easier for pilots to see more of the battlefield, fly the aircraft and operate weapons systems, according to Christopher Ames, the company’s director of international strategic development.

“There’s really no ground station in the world like this today,” he said in an interview at the show.

Operators sit in front of a bank of six 24-inch monitors arranged in two horizontal rows. The upper monitors provide a 120-degree view of the battlefield using a combination of live video, synthetic images and air traffic information. The wider field of view comes from digital-terrain data fed into the left and right screens complementing the live video in the center screen.

“It’s synthetic,” Ames explained, motioning to what looked like streaming video on the side screens. “It’s being pumped in.”

The lower monitors display mission systems, maps including 3-D graphics and a general screen for chat, e-mail and other mission applications. A quick tap of the finger to various boxes on the lower left screen brings up different systems, including the mission check list, command and control pages, and warning system.

“Everything is basically up front,” engineer Stephen De La Cruz explained.

The company’s unmanned aircraft such as the Predator A and Predator B, known commonly by their Air Force designations, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, had always collected reams of mission-related information, but the ground station didn’t present it all to pilots, De La Cruz said.

“We never tapped into that to create a nice display for the operator,” he said. The new cockpit, known officially as the Cockpit Block 50 Ground Control Station, does.

What’s more, pilots can use the hand-held controller instead of the control stick to avoid hand fatigue on missions that can last eight hours or longer. Thus, the upgraded system is designed to allow a single crew member to both fly the aircraft and operate its weapons and sensor suite. Today, two crew members typically perform those jobs — using two adjacent ground control stations.

“If you want to save manpower, that’s a good thing,” Ames said.

The company recently won a four-year contract to supply the Air Force with seven of the ground control stations, as well as to provide manuals and training. It wants to sell the system, which is compatible with all of its unmanned aircraft, in the U.S. and abroad.

The company continues to pursue international sales, Ames said. Last year’s nearly $200 million deal to supply the United Arab Emirates the export-ready Predator XP, which recently conducted its first flight, “opens markets in the Middle East,” he said. Over the last year, it also sold France two Predator Bs, he said.

Meanwhile, the company is also developing enhancements for the Predator B.

The first is an option to add two fuel pods to extend the operational range of the aircraft from 27 hours to 34 hours, Ames said. The second, expected in 2016, is an option to replace the wings to increase the wingspan from 66 feet to almost 90 feet, thus extending the operational range from 27 hours to 42 hours, he said.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Joe

    wow totally makes sense why the air force insists that only rated pilots operate that console er cockpit er control panel. Much better to have an O-3 or O-4 making 70+ k a year tied to a desk since we have more desks in washington, offut, etc than aircraft.

    Best if they just get used to it. Makes too much sense to have E-5’s doing that sort of work.

  • Bernard

    Awesome. Drones are the future and eventually they will replace all piloted aircraft. Anything that makes drones more effective is a good investment.

  • milspray

    Great article! Love the photo, and the high definition touchscreens!

    • X-Man

      I wonder who makes the touchscreens they use? Are they military grade or adaptations of commercial touchscreens? Any idea?

  • Ed B

    Too many views may confuse a drone operator (I refuse to say pilot) in a quick combat situation. be better to keep it to only one or two screens.

    • RPAguy

      shows how much you know. We currently have 7 screens per crewmember to keept track of. I can’t wait to get this set up on the line. This set up makes information fall much more easily to hand/eye in a more logical manner. As far as your closemindedness about pilots being pilots, nothing I say can change that but RPA (not drone) pilots and sensor operators fall under the same physical and mental qualifications as those who fly manned assets. Your mindset is outdated in today’s military.

      • rtsy

        The Air Forces own studies have shown its easier to train a raw recruit off the street to pilot a drone than a fully trained aircraft pilot. In a few decades they may be two completely different jobs, especially if the software and systems continue to evolve this way. We could have multiple drones operated by a single pilot.

        • RPAguy

          I’m assuming that you were replying to my other comment regarding the career fields. They are already two separate career fields. 11x and18x. 18’s are the RPA pilots whereas 11x are UPT pilots. As far as those studies go there is merit there. The habits formed flying manned assets can be detrimental to flying RPA. However at the end of the day a pilot is a pilot is a pilot no matter what kind of wings he wears. To say one is better or more useful than the other is ignorant

          • rtsy

            By two completely different jobs I meant that one may have nothing to do with the other. Drone operation may be merely a point and click business and look nothing like piloting an aircraft.

          • RPAguy

            negative, google MQ-1 GCS, you will see something that looks very much like a cockpit. The only point and click RPA in that USAF inventory is the RQ-4 Global Hawk. All others, especially those that are armed, are set up and controlled very much like a manned asset.

          • rtsy

            Wow, reading comprehension skills kinda suck in todays America. Again, I’m talking about FUTURE systems.

          • RPAguy

            Ok I will admit I was only replying to your latest reply. You have to understand however, this is what I do for a living, and have done so for many years. I was trying to have a serious conversation to bring you and others a little bit in my world and then you had to go all internet tough guy on us.

            On a more serious note, the maneuvers that we utilize and the fine control needed to accurately employ a weapons preclude using point and click interface. With the way armed RPA operate in a tactical environment, it is simply not possible or intelligent to try and implement the sort of system you envision. I could maybe, MAYBE, see it in a stand-off air to air role or in a cruise missile carrier but it has no place in tactical air to air. We fly and fight in a manner no different than a manned asset except we have access to far more SA enhancing sensors and information in near real time.

          • sam

            Hello, thankyou for the comments, its great when someone who knows what hes talking about shows up. Can i ask do you pilot the plane via stick or do you gently move a ball to turn? also for instance if there was an anti air missile launched would the computer do evasive manoeuvres or would do it personally by hand? Thanks in advance.

  • rtsy

    International sales to the Middle East? I bet drones will be a great platform for monitoring on and killing crowds of protesting civilians.

  • Dfens

    Like looking at the world through 3 soda straws instead of 1.

  • William_C1

    Wish I could get one of these setups for my house.

  • VidPilot

    Has anyone noticed the device in the operator’s lap? It appears to be a PlayStation/XBox controller on steroids. I’m guessing that it’s the “hand-controller” mentioned in the article.

  • The Gunny

    All you nay sayers of types of qualifications, and training IRT manned vs unmanned, you do realize of course that the average airline pilots first time seeing their aircraft is when they fly their first passengers, all training via simulation. Whith GPS navigation, autopilots, automatic landings systems on modern aircraft; this mirrors the unmanned fleet. There is not as much difference as you think. Basically, everone is a systems monitor, until something goes wrong, and even then the computer does most of the heavy lifting!

    • Dfens

      Yeah, but sometimes they get to fly the simulators with the motion base turned “on”.

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