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.

    • RPAguy

      actually there is a specific rating for RPA pilots now, 18X, which is still a commisioned oficer billet. Rated pilots who have been to UPT are only being pulled in when there are manning shortages.

    • douglab2

      The washout rate is already high using only officers. Some enlisted may be able to succeed, but they want to leave the piloting for the officers. Flying the UAV is no easy task. I feel you underestimate the difficulty. Navigating within controlled and possibly hostile airspace while evading enemy radar is an art.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Dfens

      All it takes is money.

  • 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!

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