Boeing Bets on Black (Ops)

Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) came late to the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) party, but you've got to give these guys credit -- now that they're here, they aim to make a splash.

The company has signed a multimillion-dollar deal to provide flying robots to U.S. Special Ops in an "undisclosed location." It has pioneered a market in leasing UAVs to military try-before-you-buy-ers. And on Monday, Boeing announced it's giving UAVs their own home within the company -- the Unmanned Airborne Systems division. 

According to Boeing Military Aircraft President Chris Chadwick, unmanned aircraft may be a smallish market today, but it's growing rapidly in importance. Chadwick expects that over the next 10 years, we could see upward of $160 billion in UAV sales. As for Boeing's decision to make a major push into this market, he argues: "There is not a dominant player that stands out." Meaning the field is wide open for Boeing to take over. To which I can only reply ...

Au contraire, Boeing
On the one hand, Chadwick's got a point. It seems everyone who ever flew a model airplane as a child runs a full-fledged UAV business these days:

  • Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) sells UAVs big (Polecat) and small (Desert Hawk).
  • Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) offers the highly regarded Shadow UAV, and reportedly helps Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) build "Micro Air Vehicles."
  • Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) recently bought the license to manufacture the ultra-sexy KillerBee line of UAVs.
  • And General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) recently entered the field by partnering with Israeli UAV specialist Elbit Systems.

That said, just because everyone in the aerospace biz can build the things, doesn't mean no one dominates. General Atomics pioneered the concept of UAVs with its Predator and Reaper drones. To this day, its name is practically synonymous with the acronym.

Unfortunately, General Atomics can't be directly invested in, because it's a privately held company. But Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) can. And to my mind, the firm's stratospheric Global Hawk, groundbreaking Fire Scout minihelicopter, and new "Bat" flying wing UAV make it the company to beat in this space.

Step it up, Boeing
My point is that Boeing's realized the potential here. Great. But this market's not nearly so wide open as Chadwick thinks. To the contrary, it's jam-packed with strong competitors. If Boeing wants to break into the market, well, shuffling cubicles at Boeing HQ, and printing out a batch of business cards bearing the "Unmanned Airborne Systems" name won't do the trick.

In April, I laid out the steps Boeing must take to secure its seat at the table. The time to act on them is now.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing. General Dynamics is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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