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Future Is Now for Creator of Predator

Aerospace: Unmanned vehicle made by San Diego's General Atomics is helping revolutionize warfare in skies over Afghanistan.


President Bush has been able to tune in video images of Taliban targets in Afghanistan from the safety and comfort of the White House, giving the commander in chief a powerful capability.

The top-secret television feed from the war zone is forwarded via military satellites from the Predator, a remotely controlled spy plane built by a relatively obscure San Diego aerospace firm.

Able to hover over an area for more than 24 hours at a time, the Predator has helped to revolutionize warfare by providing instantaneous intelligence and battlefield control to commanders who are hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

But the Predator has carried out another task that seemed unthinkable just a year ago. In the first search-and-destroy mission of its kind, a Predator attacked and destroyed a target with Hellfire missiles launched from an external weapons rack.

It was a transforming moment in aviation history, marking the first time that a drone aircraft--controlled by a crew in a trailer hundreds of miles away--not only found the target but tracked it, fired at it and then even stuck around to see what kind of damage had been caused.

It was also a defining moment for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, the privately held maker of the Predator, which after nearly a decade of virtual obscurity was suddenly thrust into a blaring limelight as television and newspapers around the world reported on the aircraft's exploits.

Even Bush lauded the Predator's abilities, singling it out as an example of how the conflict in Afghanistan "has taught us more about the future of our military than a decade of blue-ribbon panels and think-tank symposiums."

"Before the war, the Predator had skeptics, because it did not fit the old ways," Bush said during a major defense policy speech at The Citadel military academy in Charleston, S.C., last month. "Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles. We're entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance--in space, on land, in the air and at sea."

The notoriety comes nearly a decade after six engineers, including a retired Navy admiral, started the company with a vision to develop an aircraft that could be controlled from long distances and instantly relay back video and radar images of what it was looking at.

Remotely-controlled drones were widely used by battlefield troops in the past but their use was severely limited. They could not travel far because they would lose radio contact with ground controllers and they were unable to provide real-time images. Photographic images taken by their cameras had to be processed once the drones returned to base.

In the beginning, the company was much like an Internet start-up where the founders worked 20 hour days, seven days a week to prove to Pentagon officials that their aircraft would not repeat the failures of past pilotless drones.

The company began in 1991 as a subsidiary of General Atomics, a nuclear power contractor, but was spun off and became an independent entity three years later.

"They would say, 'we don't need any more UAVs,'" said Thomas P. Cassidy Jr., the company's chief executive and a former admiral. "But they were thinking about the old drones that couldn't do much. They just couldn't see its use for long-range reconnaissance."

Now, with more than 600 employees, General Atomics is considered a leading maker of so-called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. It has built 70 Predators for the Pentagon and has orders for 15 more. Each of the propeller-driven aircraft costs $3million to $5million depending on how it is equipped. A deployable system, which includes four Predators, a control trailer and other support equipment, costs $20million to $25million, the company said.

The U.S. military response in Afghanistan thrust the company into the limelight and may make selling the aircraft a lot easier, Cassidy said.

Additional follow-up orders are expected and in recent weeks the Air Force acquired two new aircraft developed by the company, dubbed Predator B, a larger and more advanced aircraft powered by a propjet, for $26million. The Air Force took possession of the first Predator B even though it was still undergoing test flights.

The company also has doubled Predator production to four per month at its 450,000-square-foot facility in Rancho Bernardo in San Diego County. Meanwhile, the company is building the Predator B at another complex in the San Bernardino County town of Adelanto. By next summer, the company expects to have another 100 employees.

"We planned for it [the expansion] all along," Cassidy said. "We've been kind of astute or just lucky."

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