A fleet of robotic spies seemed to spring up overnight in the skies of Afghanistan after September 11. That's because retired admiral Thomas J. Cassidy, CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, took an enormous gamble years before: Instead of waiting for orders for his unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to flow in from the Pentagon, he decided to build the drones on spec.
Four years and thousands of missions later, that roll of the dice has more than paid off: Last March, the Air Force committed to buy approximately 156--$5.7 billion worth--of the Cessna-sized Predators over the next five years. And in August, Cassidy beat out Northrop Grumman for a contract for 132 next-generation drones for the Army.
UAVs have been around since the 1960s (reconnaissance drones flew during the first Gulf War and even in Vietnam). But it was the Predator, retrofitted with Hellfire missiles and able to stay aloft nearly three times as long as its manned equivalents, that finally won over the Pentagon. Today, the U.S. military and intelligence services employ about 180 of the drones to spy on guerrillas--and, on occasion, to try to liquidate them: Three Predators were reportedly used in January's controversial attempt to take out Ayman al-Zawahiri, which killed more than a dozen people in Pakistan.
Correction: This article used an incorrect title for Thomas J. Cassidy Jr.; he is now the president of Aircraft Systems Group, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.