SAN DIEGO — In early November the front page of this newspaper carried a remarkable photograph from Yemen. Taken from television footage, the shot depicted a bearded Yemeni in white robe and sandals, bent at the waist, picking with a stick at a black spot in the desert sand.
The black spot, the caption explained, was all that remained of what had been, moments before, a vehicle packed with suspected Al Qaeda operatives. The car had been hunted from on high by a CIA-operated airplane, which hit it with an antitank missile.
The attack, for many reasons, marked a big day in the war on terrorism, but there would be no medal for the airplane's pilot. This was because there was no pilot. The plane was a drone or, more specifically, a Predator -- one in a line of pilotless aircraft being designed and largely handmade here in San Diego by a company very much on a roll.
"Up until September of last year," Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., the head of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., said last week, "things were kind of flattening out in the world of producing these airplanes.... And then all of a sudden 9/11 hit, and everybody started making tons of these things."
Every war produces a signature piece of equipment or two. In the Persian Gulf War, Patriot antimissile systems were an early media darling, only to be replaced at center stage by the Humvee. In Vietnam, of course, it was the helicopter, and in World War II the jeep and the aircraft carrier (and, for that matter, nuclear bombs).
The line can be traced back through the biplanes of World War I, the Ironclads of the Civil War, and on and on to the innovative bronze body armor of the ancient Greeks.
Now, with the prospects of war in Iraq looming larger every day, and with the amorphous "war on terrorism" only begun, it would seem to be the time of the drone.
Once-skeptical Pentagon officials have begun to speak of a future in which a third of all U.S. military aircraft are flown by remote control.
Other aerospace companies have begun to gear up to get into the game. President Bush has praised Predators by name.
And the workshops of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems now fairly hum with activity, as workers in blue and white lab coats mold wings, wire up software, install landing gear, mount missile carriers and generally build almost from scratch Predators and Predator Bs, the latest variation on the design.
"I think we have cranked out 82 Predators so far," Cassidy said, "and we will probably continue to build a dozen a year. And now we are ramping up Predator Bs.
"We've added 300 people to this company, went from 500 to 800, in the last year, just to meet increased demand on production. We have added additional plants and equipment and facilities."
The company was started 10 years ago as an affiliate of General Atomics, a nuclear power contractor.
The owner, Cassidy recalled, wanted to explore the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs: "He kind of told me we need to do this. Go do this."
So Cassidy, beginning with five hires, did.
"I had been a fighter pilot for 35 years," he said, "and I had been around airplanes all my life. And I knew that a lot of people had tried to do this before, and a lot of big companies had tried it, and nobody had been very successful. I didn't think they went about it the right way."
There were, of course, stumbles and setbacks along the way, but what developed over the decade was an aircraft, roughly the size of a small private plane, that can hover for hours, transmitting by satellite television-like images of battles in progress or targets on the move.
The planes are operated from "cockpits" on the ground hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. While they can be flown by computer, like commercial airliners on automatic pilot, in clear conditions the on-board cameras make it possible for an operator, half a world away, to fly a Predator as if looking out the window. If there were a window.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Predators were first deployed for surveillance missions and later for marking targets. In Afghanistan, they were rigged with air-to-ground missiles.
Eventually, Cassidy said, they could be developed to attack other airplanes and operate from aircraft carriers.
Before his pursuit of the drone, the Bronx, N.Y.-born Cassidy had commanded a carrier-based fighter squadron in Vietnam, served at a high level in the Pentagon and retired from the Navy as a rear admiral. Despite his background, Cassidy has no problem with the idea of forcing pilots to share combat airspace with his drones.
"I think a lot of pilots say, well, why would anybody want to mess with those things?" he said. "But we only use these unmanned airplanes in situations where piloted airplanes have no business being -- on very dull and dangerous missions, on very long, endurance missions.