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Originally published September 20, 2010 at 5:59 PM | Page modified September 22, 2010 at 2:47 PM

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Corrected version

Drone industry thrives in post-Sept. 11 world

Seeing an almost limitless market, dozens of defense contractors — Boeing and Lockheed Martin among them — are vying to get in on the action. They are building surveillance drones the size of insects that can fly through open windows, and others as big as jetliners that can skim the stratosphere.

Los Angeles Times

POWAY, Calif. — The cars begin rolling through the security checkpoints before dawn. Here, in a sprawling complex amid the craggy rock outcroppings of northern San Diego County, 3,300 workers are building a new generation of weapons central to the military's vision for modern warfare.

This is where General Atomics Aeronautical Systems makes the Predator and Reaper drones, robotic planes that can thread the rugged mountains of Pakistan, capture video images of terrorist hide-outs and launch 100-pound Hellfire missiles to blast them apart.

The company's 1.9-million-square-foot facility is a showcase for Southern California's drone industry, which employs an estimated 10,000 people. The fast-growing business is fueled by Pentagon spending — at least $20 billion since 2001 — and billions more chipped in by the CIA and Congress.

Seeing an almost limitless market, dozens of defense contractors — Boeing and Lockheed Martin among them — are vying to get in on the action. They are building surveillance drones the size of insects that can fly through open windows, and others as big as jetliners that can skim the stratosphere.

Soon, experts say, the military and companies alike will have fleets of robotic planes that can do just about everything piloted aircraft can do, such as carrying cargo and engaging in aerial combat.

"It is the most hotly sought-after weapon system in a generation," said Loren Thompson, a military policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

Nine years ago, Thomas J. Cassidy Jr. stood on the windswept tarmac of Adelanto Airport in the Mojave Desert, pitching the wonders of the Predator drone to a dozen scientists and firefighting officials.

For Cassidy, this was the B list. The Pentagon was always seen as the primary customer for the Predator, but early trials during the conflict in Bosnia hadn't gone well.

The small aircraft, powered by a pusher propeller, was easily shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Fighter pilots mocked it as a pricey model plane.

Cassidy, a gruff former Navy rear admiral, was hired by General Atomics to persuade his former military comrades to buy the Predator. Now he was looking for any customers he could find.

The Predator could be used to see wildfires, he told his latest prospects. It could monitor global warming.

The audience listened politely, then scattered quickly when the demonstration ended. There were no takers.

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It was Sept. 6, 2001. Five days later, the world changed.

"That's when the phone started ringing off the hook," Cassidy said.

With the Sept 11 attacks, the military suddenly wanted a weapon that could search for and destroy al-Qaida's mountain lairs. The Predator had its customer.

Drones have their critics. On the battlefield, the pilotless drones have struggled with system failures, computer glitches and human error.

Hundreds of unintentional civilian casualties have been blamed on strikes linked to drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What's more, some critics say the technology is a substitute for strategy — relying on video surveillance to track terrorists instead of trying to build intelligence the old-fashioned way, through relationships with local people.

"Everybody is gaga over this technology, but they haven't seen how much time and money go into flying these things," said Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group. "They are not cheap, and they have limitations."

Still, drones have become a key part of military operations. The Pentagon is spending more than $4 billion this year buying and operating drones, more than 7,000 of which are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The CIA is also spending about $1 billion a year on drone technology, according to analysts, although the actual amount is not known because the agency's budget is classified.

There is also a robust international market for U.S.-built drones, including Turkey, Italy and Britain.

Last year, the Air Force released its Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan, which forecasts the possible drone development through 2047.

In it, the Air Force lays out how drones would eventually replace nearly every manned plane — from fighters to tankers to bombers.

With Pentagon spending slowing overall, aerospace contractors are scrambling to enter the business. General Atomics and Northrop reign as the two biggest drone builders.

Their rivals include:

• Boeing, which has snapped up small drone manufacturers in a bid to catch up with the technology. One of its key acquisitions was Insitu, of Bingen, Klickitat County, which builds small drones used for surveillance and reconnaissance by the military. The 2008 Insitu acquisition led Boeing to create a new Unmanned Systems division, headquartered in Seattle.

Among the drones Boeing is developing are the fighter-sized Phantom, which analysts said could be used for long-range bombing missions, and the Phantom Eye, an egg-shaped spy plane that can stay aloft for up to four days at 65,000 feet.

And last week, Boeing signed an $89 million contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and fly its SolarEagle unmanned aircraft, designed to eventually remain on station at stratospheric altitudes for at least five years, for the Vulture II demonstration program.

• AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, Calif., makes an array of small drones that have become a mainstay of the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. One of them, the Raven, weighs about 4 pounds and is fitted with video cameras to give U.S. troops a bird's-eye view of what could lie ahead or over a hill.

Like Boeing, AeroVironment is also building a long-endurance spy plane, dubbed the Global Observer, which is in test flight at Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave.

The plane, with its 175-foot wingspan, is designed to hover at 65,000 feet for a week at a time.

• Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest defense contractor, is making a radar-evading drone called the RQ-170 Sentinel or the "Beast of Kandahar." Little is known about the stealthy plane, except that it is being developed at Lockheed's famed Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif.

The Bethesda, Md., company has also teamed with Kaman Aerospace on a robotic helicopter for transporting cargo.

Information from Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates about Boeing's drone business is included in this report.

Information in this article, originally published Sept. 20, was corrected Sept. 22. A previous version of this story said drones could launch 500-pound Hellfire missiles. Hellfire missiles actually weigh about 100 pounds.

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