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The car heads across the scorched desert of the Arabian peninsula, a suspected terrorist mastermind at the wheel, while just out of sight, his nemesis circles above in the form of small robot plane. In an air-conditioned room on the US eastern seaboard, a man in shirtsleeves sips his coffee and presses a key on his laptop computer, dealing out death half a world away. The drone unleashes its Hellfire missiles, blasting the car to pieces, then banks and heads for home, coldly oblivious to the receding ball of flame. That, or something like it, may have been the scenario for the killing of an al-Qaeda operative and five associates in Yemen on Sunday, reportedly by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The assassination marks a new step in a trend towards unmanned warfare, in which expensively trained pilots and frontline troops will be increasingly taken over by cheap robots.