SACRAMENTO, CA - Tens of thousands of drones are expected to take to the skies over the U.S. in the next 10 years. Unmanned aerial vehicles will be used by law enforcement, emergency responders, even news organizations.
One of the most popular drones, already in use by the military, is much closer than you think. Hundreds of "Skeeters" are built for the Air Force and foreign militaries, under tight security in a large building on Raley Boulevard in Sacramento.
The BQM-167 "Skeeter" blasts off the launch rail like a rocket, and flies like a cruise missile. Each one costs about $570,000. Air Force fighter pilots use the drones for target practice over the Gulf of Mexico. Expensive targets, but the military believes these drones save both lives and money.
"This vehicle will do everything that a fighter aircraft will do," Composite Engineering Inc. Business Development Director Gary Freudenberger said.
CEI might be the most secretive aerospace company in Sacramento. The company has grown from 80 employees in 2002, to roughly 400 today. The company's success is built on the "Skeeter."
It's almost a secret weapon, because few people ever see one blaze across the sky. The Skeeter can fly to 50,000 feet, or cruise just 50 feet above the ground. Top speed is nearly 700 miles an hour.
"This vehicle will pull 9-G sustained turns," Freudenberger said. "There is no loss of altitude and no loss of speed during that 9-G turn."
Sacramento has a rich aerospace history, including building and testing rocket motors for the Apollo moon missions. But few people are aware that one of the most popular drones in the military is built in Sacramento.
The Skeeter is a bright orange target drone. Air Force fighter pilots, armed with air-to-air missiles, go gunning for these target drones in closed military airspace over the Gulf of Mexico.
"So when we go up there, they represent what would be the enemy," former Air Force fighter pilot Rod Zastrow said.
Zastrow flew an F-15 in the Gulf War. He believes that target drones are a big reason why no American fighter jet has been shot down in air-to-air combat since Viet Nam.
"It helps our aviators feel confident about the systems they're carrying and employing, going into combat," Zastrow said.
The bad guys know this is a dogfight they're going to lose. Patrolling the No Fly Zone over Iraq during the Gulf War, Zastrow spotted an incoming enemy fighter on his radar. He locked his missiles on the "bandit", but didn't need to fire. The enemy fighter knew he was out gunned, turned quickly and sped away.
The drones are no easy target. They can fire flares to throw off an incoming heat-seeking missile. Missiles that are fired at the drones during practice do not carry an explosive warhead. But the missile might hit the drone and knock off a wing or a tail fin. The drones parachute into the Gulf of Mexico, where they are plucked out of the water by specially built ships. The drones are repaired and flown again. But most of the drones survive no more than 5 to 7 target missions.
Zastrow once blew a target drone out of the sky during target practice, when his AIM-7 slammed into the drone's fuel tank.
"Because of where it hit, it created quite a large fireball," recalled Zastrow. "So it was quite noticeable. And it was very satisfying in the sense that I knew the system worked."
The target drones do cause a scare when one washes up on the gulf coast. Frightened beach goers think it's a cruise missile or a spy plane.
No, it's just a made-in-Sacramento target drone, rarely seen by anyone outside the military. And even though these sleek jets are built to be shot down, the military believes they are well worth the price.
DISCLOSURE: Note from News10's Dale Schornack
I first approached CEI two years ago, about doing a story on their target drones and the remarkable success of the company. The response was polite, but usually something like, "We'll get back to you." The military was only slightly more helpful, but also declined to go on camera to talk about the drones.
Col. Rod Zastrow (USAF Ret.) is a relative of mine from South Dakota. Rod has fired missiles at several target drones during practice over the Gulf of Mexico. We could not determine if those drones were manufactured by CEI or another aerospace company.