EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — With its plank-like wings and a leisurely cruising speed of 84 mph, the propeller-driven Predator spy plane looked pokey compared with the fighter jets zooming across the desert sky.
But when the Predator made a picture-perfect landing, 600 people encircled it. The crowd appeared eager to hoist the pilot to their shoulders -- except the plane doesn't have a pilot or a cockpit or any windows. The Predator was "piloted" by a computer operator working a joystick in a nearby trailer.
This week the Air Force for the first time let the public view four of its once-secret robotic planes in operation. Instead of a typical air show with fast jets and acrobatic airplanes, the unmanned aircraft made wide slow loops before gradually descending to land. Another dozen unmanned military aircraft were parked nearby, including two that are designed to drop bombs.
Remote-controlled planes are "no longer a hobby-shop business," said Maj. Gen. Wilbert D. Pearson Jr., commander of Edwards Air Force Base. "It's now a serious military operation."
The Pentagon has put unmanned aircraft at the forefront of its weapons development program -- promising rich rewards for military contractors in Southern California and beyond.
The Bush administration has committed $2 billion in this year's Defense Department budget to developing and buying more unmanned aircraft, and analysts believe an additional $1 billion is couched within the top-secret portion of the budget.
The Pentagon envisions replacing a third of the nation's military aircraft inventory with pilotless planes by 2010.
Although unmanned aircraft have been around for decades -- some were used in Vietnam in the 1960s -- the technology has taken off in earnest in the last couple of years. One reason is the Predator's success during the war in Afghanistan.
In one incident, a Predator built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Rancho Bernardo, Calif., spotted a Taliban convoy, then fired a Hellfire missile, striking the target. It was the first time an unmanned airplane had identified a target and successfully fired a weapon at it.
During the invasion of Iraq last year, U.S. forces are thought to have used at least a dozen robotic planes. These included the 5-pound Dragon Eye, used by the Marine Corps as a reconnaissance craft to transmit live images of Iraqi troop movements.
"Afghanistan and Iraq were absolutely critical" to the coming of age of unmanned aircraft, said Michel Merluzeau, a defense analyst with research firm Frost & Sullivan.
The mini-air show at Edwards was part of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's convention in Anaheim this week, where more than 200 companies hawked their latest robotic flying machines. Exhibitors included aerospace giants Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., as well as mom-and-pop firms.
"It reminds me of the pioneering spirit from the early days of aviation," said Mike Heinz, Boeing's manager for unmanned systems. "Everybody is trying to get in on it."
The size and cost of the aircraft varied widely: from a $5,000, 6-inch-long plane equipped with a camera, to Northrop's $45-million Global Hawk, the most advanced spy plane in the U.S. arsenal. The jet-powered Global Hawk can reach speeds of 360 mph, take spy images from 60,000 feet and stay airborne for 35 hours.
The U.S. military accounts for about 70% of the unmanned aircraft market, but the military in Australia and Japan as well as some businesses are eyeing their use.
Also, the Coast Guard is testing an unmanned plane to use for coastal patrols in Alaska, and the Forest Service is looking at them to help fight fires by looking for hot spots.
As a result, aerospace companies of all sizes are betting on projections that the unmanned aircraft market will top $6 billion a year by 2010, up from $1 billion in 2001. "You have companies popping up left and right," Merluzeau said.
More than 3,000 people attended this week's convention. Among them: hobbyists trying to turn their expertise in remotely controlled toy planes into lucrative defense contracts.
One exhibitor, Paul Ford, an engineer from Cambridge, England, has been tinkering with tiny jet engines -- some the size of golf balls -- for expensive toy airplanes, but now sees a new market.
Ford said he had gotten "calls from all over the world," including from the U.S. military, asking about making the tiny jet engines for flying drones.
So Ford formed a company, Microjet Engineering, whose motto is: "Whatever you want to call it, we can build it," and made his first marketing trip to the U.S. to attend the convention. He proudly displayed his biggest product: a jet engine that can fit on a tabletop. He said he had several military customers, but he wouldn't name them.