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Casey Christie / The Californian

Elijah Soto, director of unmanned aerial systems for the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, looks at a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Cameron McCullom works with the unmanned aerial vehicles at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. The ScanEagle (foreground), an unmanned aerial vehicle, is considered a workhorse for the Navy.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Brett Belgum, who works with drone research at China Lake, stands next to the Tiger Shark, an unmanned aerial vehicle that can carry a wide variety of equipment and cameras.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Cameron McCullom (not pictured) uses a catapult commonly used to launch drone aircraft to launch a test dummy at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest in this Feb. 21, 2013 file photo.

NAVAL AIR WEAPONS STATION, CHINA LAKE -- Drive a few miles beyond the well-guarded entrance to this massive military base in northeastern Kern County and you'll find an inner security gate that protects what locals refer to as a "restricted area."

Here civilian scientists, technicians, engineers and naval officers are involved in the development, testing and evaluation of a facet of warfare that has become a critical component in the overall mission to protect the homeland and provide uniformed troops with a decisive advantage over enemy forces.

In recent years, a quiet, yet fundamental shift has taken place at this remote weapons-development center on the edge of the Mojave Desert. In 2011, for the first time in its history, more flight hours were logged by pilotless aircraft than were flown in the traditional manner -- by a skilled aviator strapped into a cockpit.

In fact, these newer planes and rotary-prop aircraft usually have no cockpit at all. The military sometimes calls them Unmanned Aerial Systems or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles -- or simply UAVs. But to the general public they're commonly known as drones.

"It is the future," said Scott O'Neil, executive director of research and engineering at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, which includes dozens of research and testing facilities at China Lake near Ridgecrest and the naval air station at Point Mugu in Ventura County.

"It's very powerful and very useful because we can take a human being out of harm's way," O'Neil said. "And of course that's the whole idea."

And they're not just developing air-based systems. The Weapons Division is testing submarine and surface-based vehicles designed for water environments -- and remote-operated land-based vehicles, including remotely operated tank-like vehicles.

'CLEARED FOR WEIRD'

Last week, Elijah Soto, director of unmanned systems, showed off a Ford F-350 pickup near an airstrip inside the restricted zone. On the outside, it looks like your neighbor's truck. But the front seat and other parts of this experimental vehicle are packed with electronics that give it the capacity to move through hazardous areas without a driver at the wheel.

It's remote-controlled, but it also has the ability to remember and drive a set path autonomously, Soto said. The proven dangers of improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, means troops on the ground could send supplies or transportation, or survey a perimeter in a high-risk area, without needlessly risking the lives of combat troops.

Unmanned technology is ideal for the so-called triple-D missions, he said, the dull, the dirty and the dangerous.

Soto wouldn't say exactly how many different unmanned systems are in the Navy's research, development, test and evaluation processes.

"There's a lot," he said. "Hundreds."

Pilotless drones range from planes with eight-centimeter wingspans -- the size of a small bird -- to aircraft weighing 13 tons with wingspans exceeding 100 feet.

With 26,000 square miles of restricted air space to play in, researchers and evaluators can do things within the Weapons Division's test range they can't do anywhere else.

Soto calls it being "cleared for weird."

They have pneumatic catapult launch systems designed to get smaller and mid-size UAVs into the air without the need for a runway or an "improved surface."

But how do they land?

The creative minds involved in unmanned systems technology have developed a rope-recovery system or skyhook to snag and stop the drones in mid-flight. Controllers fly the rear-swept wing of a drone into the rope suspended from a portable steel boom structure. A hook-like piece of hardware at the tip of the wing catches the rope and the plane is soon back in the hands of technicians.

The stress of such a quick stop is greatly reduced by a bungee system attached to the rope that helps absorb the shock, Soto said.

They're also experimenting with rancid odors as a non-lethal way of protecting small unmanned ground vehicles, which are sometimes quite vulnerable to someone with a baseball bat or a club.

When sensors or cameras identify a potential threat, the ground vehicle will release a malodorous chemical that causes a retching, gagging response that repels approaching humans.

Some day, even fully capable jet fighter aircraft will likely be operated routinely through remote technology.

"It's on the horizon," Soto said. "I don't think it's too far off in our future."

He loves coming to work.

"Every day I know I'm going to be able to work with some of the brightest minds on the planet," he said.

The rewards are great, O'Neil added, but the challenges remain daunting.

BENEFITS AND COSTS

"We don't get involved, necessarily, in the development of the unmanned system," O'Neil said.

The job of the Weapons Division is to develop the capabilities -- the cameras, the sensors, the listening devices -- of the unmanned system as a tool of war.

"We can use them in a way that gives our guys an advantage in the fight," O'Neil said. "We don't want a fair fight. We want an advantage."

But O'Neil acknowledged that ethical issues associated with the military and civilian use of drone technology remain unresolved.

In the past decade, the CIA has used drone aircraft to target suspected terrorists on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some critics have questioned whether such targeted assassinations, especially within the borders of an allied sovereign nation like Pakistan, are legal or ethical. And when women, children and other noncombatants are injured or killed in the explosions, more questions are raised.

In 2011, the Washington Post reported that drones were used by the CIA to monitor the home compound of Osama bin Laden, and provided high-resolution video on the night of the SEAL team raid that resulted in the death of the world's most wanted terrorist.

By far, the biggest use of drone aircraft is in the area of information gathering and surveillance. And one of the biggest challenges facing researchers and counterterrorism experts is how to sift through the massive amounts of data to find the small slices of information that may be critical.

"You're looking for a needle in a haystack," O'Neil said. "But we're figuring out ways to do that. And then, once you find the needle, you want to go, OK, am I interested in that needle or do I need to find a different one?

"Sometimes we're listening and sometimes we're provoking to see what they will do," he said. "It's complicated and pretty complex.

"Just look at the number of cell phone towers around. There's a way to get information -- and get information on you. And you can do the same thing with the enemy ... then how do you figure out, who are the bad guys?"