While the concept of military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles has been around since before World War Two, UAVs were mainly used as missile test drones for most of that period. All that changed in 1988, when the US Army first fielded the Pointer, a small collapsible radio controlled aircraft carried by ground troops to be used for reconnaissance. The Pointer proved so effective that the other branches of the armed forces took notice, particularly the US Air Force.
In 1994, General Atomics was awarded the contract to further develop a long range unmanned aerial vehicle based off of it’s previous Amber and Gnat drones, and in 1995 the prototype of what became the RQ-1 (Reconnaissance Drone) and MQ-1 (Multipurpose Drone, the weaponized variant) Predator first flew. The initial order was for twelve aircraft and three ground control stations for operational evaluation, and the type was deployed to the Balkans in the summer of 1995. Compared to the manned (U-2 and SR-71) and space based (Spy Satellites) reconnaissance systems, the Predator was a massive bargain coming in at a little over $3 million US dollars, and offered much longer loiter times and the lack of a human pilot being put in harm’s way. Since that first deployment, the Predator has been improved and used in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the early days, signal lag was a huge problem for the MQ-1 system, with delays of several seconds between input and reaction. This caused damage and loss of many of the drones, with most counts putting the losses around 1/3, most due to equipment failure (Communications and computer glitches) and operator errors, as well as weather (Icing conditions). Thanks to upgrades, the signal lag has been pretty much eliminated and the use of satellite data links allows the drones to be flown from great distances away.
It is now possible for a Predator pilot and systems operator to go out on a mission over Iraq, support coalition ground troops, then make it home in time for dinner! Additionally, a weeping wing de-icing system (TKS for you real world GA types) has been added to help counter the wing icing that has brought down so many of the drones. At one point, the question was asked about adding weapons to these vehicles, and through upgrades and refinement the Predator A (MQ-1) was given a compliment of two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The Predator B, a larger version of the MQ-1 commonly known as the Reaper, carries up to 10 of the missiles.
Not surprisingly, the driving force behind development of the weaponized Predator was tracking terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan, which came as the result of the USS Cole bombing and later the 9/11 attack. Predators have even been involved in air to air combat, when armed with Stinger missiles. In 2002, a Predator baited and subsequently engaged an Iraqi Mig-25. The missile fired by the Predator missed, and it was shot down by the Mig but the engagement is still considered something of a success since the drone was used in an air to air engagement.
The sensors contained in the pod beneath the nose of the Predator include a nose camera (Used by the pilot for flying the drone), day-TV camera (Used by the sensor operators for daytime recon and targeting), infrared camera (for night/low level targeting), and a laser designator for the Hellfire missiles, or any aircraft’s laser guided bombs through “Buddy lasing” tactics.
The subjects of this review are the RQ-1 and MQ-1 variants of the Predator A, so without further delay let’s take a look at the First Class Simulations Predator UAV!
Installation and Documentation
Installation came rather easily as a simple downloaded .exe file that was a surprisingly small 30 MB. The .exe had to be unlocked with a serial number, and it then installed the aircraft to the FSX directory. This installation contains two different models of the Predator A (with and without the Hellfire missiles) and five textures. In addition, it contains a pack of eight missions and .DF and .DOC manuals. In order to have the scenery installed for the missions, it must be manually added to the scenery database in FSX, as outlined in the manual.
The manual gives a brief introduction to the Predator, as well as a walk through briefing of the missions. It has pictures and color, but is very sparse on details. Some inaccuracies were noted, including a false statement that the MQ-1 is a stealth aircraft. I was unable to find any real world Predator manuals, and since the one provided does not cover anything of the flight characteristics, I was left to fend for myself as far as learning to fly the thing, which is reputed to be one of the more difficult aircraft in the USAF’s inventory to land.
I feel that with a unique aircraft such as this, the developer should have included a flying guide and checklist, but with an unlimited amount of aircraft to use, crashing a few for testing wasn’t a big deal.
When I first caught glimpse of the Predator UAV in the preview box in my select aircraft menu, I was immediately surprised by the high gloss finish that it showed. Being a military combat aircraft, there’s no way a Predator is that shiny! Though I don’t know for sure, this may be due to the fact that the aircraft is designed and published for dual simulator use.
Either way, separate FSX models/textures that would reduce this shine should be included, or the developer should just have realized that the Predator is not an executive transport or freshly painted airliner, and shouldn’t shine like a new penny. Other than the shine, I thought the model represented the aircraft rather well from the thousands of pictures and videos that I have seen of it, and I couldn’t wait to get her in the air!
Interior Model (Virtual Operator’s Station)
I was anxious to climb into the operator’s station van of the Predator UAV for the first time, as it would be a completely new and unfamiliar type of simulated flying. I’ve flown thousands of hours in the simulator, and I’m not a total newbie when it comes to R/C planes, so the Predator would be a perfect meeting of the two worlds.
Prior to flying I consulted the included manual (not much help at all), and online resources to get a bit of a background on the pilot’s operating station and controls for the MQ-1. The basic layout is for two separate stations for the pilot and sensor operator, each with two large screens on the top and two smaller screens for systems monitoring on the bottom, with a small desk with the switches, keyboard, and flight controls for the aircraft. I found that the VOS included with this package was basically accurate, with some creative license taken with the 3D modeling of the flight controls (Not matching the shape of the real thing), station consoles (Layout is slightly different for the flight controls and switches on the real thing), and the seats (Standard wheeled rotating office chairs are modeled, where the real seats are more like airline captain chairs minus the shoulder harnesses and sheepskin).
The overall feel of the Predator operator’s station is kept, but it isn’t 100% accurate to the real thing. The exposed computer rack in the middle of the stations is a nice touch as are the blackboards next to the pilots for note taking, however the radios are notably absent. The surroundings are rather industrial looking, which helps enhance the feel that you are in the back of a truck parked on the ramp at your Predator’s home base, but the red velvet curtain behind the pilots seems a bit too plush for a military cockpit.
The textures are very plain and low resolution except for on the control desk (Keyboard and switch labels are all fully readable), and are another low point in the package. Due to simulator limitations, very few of the Predator’s systems are modeled, so the cockpit as a whole has been simplified as well. I’d have preferred to have dummy switches and a more realistic layout, even if they weren’t functional, but that would have hampered performance.
Flying the MQ-1, or any UAV for that matter, is more difficult to do than flying a manned aircraft due to the lack of depth perception and situational awareness. I found that the Virtual Operator’s Station was adequate for flying the aircraft, though launch and recovery (Takeoff and landing) was very difficult the first few times, and sketchy at best even once I got the right sight picture in my head. This is due to a few factors: lack of SA from the small outside view, the design of the Predator with the downturned tailplanes requiring a nearly level landing attitude with no flare, and a lower quality airfile and flight dynamics package than I’m used to (More on that later).
A radio/radar altimeter display on the main screen would have been very helpful. I am unsure of the actual format of the Predator’s main screen, but the one that First Class Simulations provided is unique, informative, and was very easy to understand and use after just a few seconds of taxiing. It utilizes a novel type of vertical tape indicator that is almost a hybrid of a gauge, moving the numeric display up and down to match the value it was displaying. I did not care for the attitude indicator used with a + in the center of the screen and a single line going across with a typed out display for bank angle and AOA. I prefer an AI with graduations, as I feel it allows for more precise control, and from the few pictures I’ve seen of the real Predator’s main screen, the real McCoy appears to have attitude graduations.
The upper navigational map screen uses the default FSX Garmin 500, which does the job adequately, but does not really resemble the screen on the real Predator. I do like the right side bar add-on with typed out readings of heading, position, speed, etc. as I feel it adds to the realism. My only gripe is that you can really only focus on one screen at a time, which hampers situational awareness though this is more of a General Atomics issue than a First Class Simulations/Abacus one. I’m sure a device like Track IR would help here, but the rest of us will just have to perfect the use of trim and our POV hats.
The lower right screen is very useful providing information regarding operation of the aircraft’s engine and flight path, though it is difficult to use as any time you zoom out to a point where it can be seen in combination with the main screen it becomes difficult to read. The lower left screen looks cool as well, but provides much less as far as usable flight data goes. That’s not an issue though, as you don’t need to check fuel state as often as something such as attitude or EGT during a long climb to high altitude.
2D Cockpit and Popups
Thanks to the graphics advances offered in FSX, the 2D panel is becoming obsolete, though it is a godsend for people running smaller monitors or lower end computers. I personally used the 3D Operator’s station (can’t call it a cockpit) for 95% of my flying, but for the sake of the review I used the 2D panel and popups and was somewhat surprised.
I did find that when using the 3D panel over unfamiliar terrain, it was very helpful to open the top (navigation) screen in a separate window to park in the corner and help get me where I was going, but this was not the biggest benefit. Thanks to simulator limitations, a head motion g-force effect is in place in FSX that moves your view of the 3D cockpit, sometimes obscuring vital readouts and instruments. Being a UAV, situational awareness is not increased by a large amount by using the VC even though the 2D panel’s main screen is much smaller than the 3Ds.
In more resource hungry areas, tracking an “enemy” car near a major airport or city for example, the 2D panel’s frame rate benefit can keep the FPS well into the 20s and beyond where the 3D would be closer to 15. The 2D panel focuses on the lower portion of the Predator’s operator station showing primarily the lower main screen and the two smaller systems screens at the bottom. Also available is the “Radar Map” (Navigational screen) popup which can be used as a primary flight display provided you are at high altitude with proper trim, along with the default Garmin 295 GPS unit.
I have seen similar handheld GPS type devices (obviously hooked up to the ground station’s communications link to the aircraft, as a standard handheld GPS would be pretty much pointless sitting in the same spot on the ground) in pictures of the real MQ-1 operating stations, which would be rather helpful for navigating soon after takeoff being closer to the main screen. Being a cross platform simulation, I feel that including a 2D panel in this package was the right thing do, and it was much more usable to me than most 2D panels thanks to the real Predator’s lack of SA options.
Though it is for the most part faithful to the real thing, the Predator UAV’s exterior model is not flawless. Overall, the look and feel of the real MQ-1 is captured rather well with some pleasant surprises such as a moving sensor pod that follows your control inputs in an effort to keep the bad guys locked up. Seeing very believable renditions of the Hellfire missiles under each wing (not on every model) added a touch of ferocity to the otherwise harmless UAV, and helped drive home the point that the aircraft is much more than an unmanned spy plane.
Due to the amount of modifications, customization, and upgrades to the Predator package, this particular model does not show the most modern representation of the real thing. That said, First Class Simulations did pick a single model of the UAV and made it quite accurate with the single blade antennae behind the sat-com dome at the nose of the aircraft, the smoothly faired bulge above the wings, and the small pod located just to the right of the nose gear.
Speaking of landing gear, the Predator has a relatively simple retractable undercarriage that is well done in the simulator. From every picture I’ve seen, I can attest to the fact that First Class got this one right, especially the cool looking nose gear arm that angles foreword to provide clearance for the sensor pod. I feel that more detail could have been spared on the sensor pod, which to me looks more like Neil Armstrong’s helmet than a FLIR pod. The two right side cameras look great, but the massive golden sphere on the left side is absent from every MQ-1 I’ve ever seen. This could have been due to the fact that the glass on the real thing has some odd (though cool) reflections, and they chose to texture it gold, but I feel that it detracts from the package.
At the Predator’s other end, the distinctive downward turned tailplanes were well done, as was the rudder. The pusher prop’s spinner could have been a bit more accurate, as the real thing is quite a bit shorter and fatter with much less of a smooth curve than modeled. From studying images of the real Predator, I also feel that the air cooled Rotax engine’s cooling ducts could have been more faithful. They seem much too small on the First Class Simulations model. Furthermore, the lip that separates the top of the fuselage from the bottom seems to jut out just a bit more than the real thing. I am a bit of a stickler for details, so these things all stuck out to me, however the untrained eye would probably never even notice, and despite the flaws I still feel that it is a great model.
As far as animations go, I have already touched on the sensor pod, which I absolutely love. It is a great replacement for not having a pilot turning and adjusting their head for a better view of where you are sending them. The landing gear animation is great, and accurately re-creates the simple yet cool retraction of the Predator’s gear. True to life, the MQ-1’s gear does not have any doors to cover it and it just sits tucked up in its well until called on for a recovery.
First Class Simulations has also included wing flex with this model, but I feel that it is a bit overdone and has a bit of a kink in the wing at it’s lowest end of travel. I know the Predator’s high aspect ratio wings flex upwards quite a bit at cruising speed, but not quite as much as is modeled. I also think that the effect is a bit too rapid, with the wings going from full down to full up in the range of about 35 knots (Starting at around 45 and ending at a seemingly wing spar cracking high point around 80 knots). Having never actually had the chance to see a real Predator fly in person, it is hard to tell if the control surface animation is correct, though in pitch it does seem correct. No visible command is animated for the roll axis, which seems strange, and I’m sure has to have been an oversight.
The relatively small vertical stab/rudder is animated as well, and seems to go maybe a bit too far to the sides at full deflection, but I’m not sure. Had the developers spent more time on the animations of this aircraft, it would have been a much higher quality product, but in fairness the Predator is designed to be flown from the Operator’s Station, not Spot Plane view.
Textures and exterior effects on the exterior of this package are a bit of a letdown. Noticeably absent are FSX native features such as bump mapping, which give the aircraft a more lifeless appearance than other aircraft I’ve tested/flown lately. Another low point was the extreme degree of reflectivity, which does not emulate the real Predator well, and the two real world textures seem a bit too grey overall considering the real MQ-1s are mostly painted a bright white. That said the markings on the real versions are great and true to life as far as I can tell. They don’t look like an afterthought decal type thing, rather blended into the paint.
The Predator UAV package contains five textures: 57th Wing (No Hellfires), 15th Recon Squadron (2 Hellfires), and three unarmed fictional schemes (Desert Camo, Snow/Winter Camo, and All Black Night “camo”). They represent both of the Predator’s missions, though I’d have liked to see a WA tail code MQ-1 with the Hellfires so I could practice on the ranges at Nellis.
All in all, the Predator UAV’s exterior is OK, not great (The RealAir SF-260 or Lotus L-39 certainly count), but not bad either, and is better than most freeware models. Had more care been taken with the texturing, animations, and modeling the Predator would have had the potential to be one of the all time greats in the FS world, but this was not to be.
Even though the USAF trained more drone/UAV pilots than actual in the cockpit pilots in 2009, I was not one of them and I don’t have any time in the real Predator, so the following statements come solely from what I think the vehicle should fly like. First off, taxiing was a rather difficult, though a fun aspect of flying the Predator, and it took a little while to master the unique sights and challenges that involving controlling an aircraft from a screen shown on another screen.
Once on the runway, I applied full throttle, and the MQ-1 accelerated at a somewhat slow rate, though I’m sure it would have been much faster had I not had over 10 hours worth of fuel onboard. Rotation had to be made slowly at first to prevent a tailplane strike, which I’m guessing is quite common with the almost ridiculously low ground clearance of the tails. After getting some air beneath the tires, climb rates were expectedly high with the long slender glider-like wing. I was able to maintain high climb rates up to operating altitude (between 15,000 and 25,000 feet), though the non turbocharged engine did develop less power which did reduce the climb rates and speeds.
The Predator is not a fast aircraft by a long shot, staying well under 200 knots. I usually cruised it in the low to mid 100s and found it to be stable and easy to trim out for my recon duties. Since the systems are not modeled, I decided to use one of the exterior views (the aircraft “tail” view) to slew it towards the ground and use high magnifications to track my targets (usually AI boats or cars in free flight). It was a unique challenge to keep them in the view, but I found it fun. I feel that the aircraft may be a little bit too responsive considering that it is first and foremost a camera platform and not a dogfighter.
One added benefit to this package (for FSX users only) was the inclusion of eight missions. I will not go into a ton of detail and give a walk through for every mission, but I will give my general impression. The missions take place in locations ranging from the northwest part of the US, to the coast of the Netherlands, to Iceland and involve some real world scenarios for the Predator.
Save for the plane tracking and smuggler missions these are more like training and humanitarian scenarios rather than combat, but they are rather unrealistic (though still fun) for a few reasons. First off, all the missions occur at low altitudes (I spent nearly the whole time under 5000 feet AGL), which contradicts the real Predator’s MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) status as operations are flown in the 15,000 to 25,000 foot level (Not to mention that one of the missions required some canyon running, which I would venture a guess to say that the real Predators are never used in that environment).
This is probably due to the lack of high magnification optics being added to the simulation, but either way it is a drawback in the realism category. There are some positive aspects of the missions though, they are all pretty fun though the scenarios can get a bit repetitive if you were to sit down and fly all eight in a row, as well as the control station being modeled as a scenery object on the ramp near where your Predator starts its missions. In any case, despite the operational inconsistencies, the missions are still fun and give an idea of how versatile the real MQ-1 can be.
Though I have never heard a real MQ-1 in action, I had a good idea of what to expect considering that it uses a four cylinder Rotax engine originally used in snowmobiles but it is also popular with Light Sport Aircraft. In addition to all the switch flicks, landing bumps, and other equipment sounds, the Predator UAV’s sound set accurately portrays the high pitched whine of the Rotax engine, and the associated wind noise.
The sounds weren’t the greatest I’ve heard, but are of much higher quality than I had expected. The only gripe I have here is that you can hear the engine sounds when in the “cockpit” as if you were in the aircraft, despite the fact that I was separated from it by thousands of vertical feet and many, many miles. I believe that this is a simulator limitation, but I do think there may be a way to get around it by using different sound files for the cockpit. I feel that the sound set is better than expected, and is as accurate to reality as I could have possibly hoped!
Summary / Closing Remarks
Despite some quality issues, I feel that the Predator is still worth a look by any simmer who is interested in the real world UAV. Its combination of frame rate performance and a huge fun factor make it an enjoyable aircraft to fly.
Even though the systems are not modeled as in real life and there are small flaws in the model and textures, the positives (great sound set, the included missions, a decent though not perfect model) seem to outweigh the negatives in my book. Had the developers spent a bit more time on the product I’m sure they could have created a product that was more realistic and desirable.
If you ever get bored flying the Predator around stalking your friend’s Cessna over the LAN or Gamespy, you can always load up a mission and prevent terrorist attacks around the globe.
What I Like About The Predator UAV
What I Don't Like About The Predator UAV
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