Hey! Who's Flying This Thing? (The 2009 Boxed Set)

It's been a good year for unmanned aerial vehicles -- and a great year for investing in 'em. But 2009 is drawing to a close, and here at the Fool, we've got time to squeeze in just one last update on developments in the field. Herewith, an update on who's who and what's what in the exciting world of flying model airplanes ... that kill.

The 2009 UAVs: Collect 'em all!
2009 started out with a bang for the UAV industry, when Israel (allegedly) proved just how useful unmanned aerial vehicles can be in practice, sending a UAV task force hundreds of miles into foreign territory to take down Iranian supply convoys that were (again allegedly) funneling rockets to Hamas via Sudan. Impressed with the Israeli UAV expert's success, America's General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) promptly formed a joint venture with Elbit Systems to market UAVs in the U.S.

Why team up with a second-tier player like Elbit? Perhaps General D felt it had to, given the pace of evolution in this nascent industry, as all the defense majors scramble for pieces of the UAV pie. Here's just a sampling of the developments we saw in 2009:

  • Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) secured a license to build KillerBee UAVs.
  • Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) rolled out its next-generation RQ-4 Block 40 Global Hawk.
  • And Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) made perhaps the most ambitious play of all, developing a "Compressed Carriage" variant of its ScanEagle UAV which can, in theory, piggyback on larger, manned airplanes -- or even launch from a submarine's torpedo tubes!
  • The UAV craze even went international, as nations from Poland to Pakistan to Thailand all announced they were initiating their own UAV development programs.

With advances coming fast and furious, it's little wonder that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared: "The solution to future threats is not something that has a pilot in it." As investors, though, our task is determining just whose planes won't be "having pilots in 'em" in the future.

Enter Elbit ...
Did I call Elbit Systems "second-tier" a few moments ago? My apologies. Turns out, Elbit is on the leading wave of UAV tech. Earlier this month, we learned that the Israeli defense juggernaut is developing a plane capable of flying all the way to Iran -- unmanned. If successful, that would put Iran's nuclear program, and the air defenses meant to secure it, in real jeopardy.

... and exit Northrop?
The waning weeks of 2009 produced less encouraging news for Northrop; turns out the company's Fire Scout robotic helicopter isn't going over as well as investors might wish. While the Fire Scout attracts praise from a multitude of sources, and was drafted to begin operations with the U.S. Navy last month, landlubbers aren't as keen on its prospects. In December, a report from the Army Aviation Association of America called Fire Scout too "expensive" relative to other UAVs (such as Textron's (NYSE: TXT  ) Shadow) in its arsenal, and questioned whether the Army really needs a robotic whirlybird. I'm certain Textron shareholders appreciated the report -- but I wonder if it means Northrop's revenue streams could dry up ashore.

This seems especially troublesome in light of another development this month: UAV pioneer General Atomics (of Predator and Reaper fame) is moving into Northrop's soggy turf with a maritime variant of the Predator B. Termed the "Guardian," GA's new UAV boasts upgrades including an "electromagnetic expulsion de-icing system," an "onboard traffic alert and collision avoidance system," and "laser altimeter-based landing guidance system." Why all the safety gizmos? Because unlike the Predators and Reapers roaming about sparsely populated mountaintops in Afghanistan, the Guardian will work closer to home -- specifically, with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol on drug interdiction and border security projects. The Guardian is slated to enter service early in 2010.

And what about Afghanistan?
Does this mean the military's losing focus on Afghanistan? To the contrary. While GA turns its attention homeward, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) is sending a new UAV, ominously dubbed "the Beast of Kandahar," to the 'Stan.

A "stealth" UAV, Lockheed's RQ-170 Sentinel hails from the famed Skunk Works, and is designed to "provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces." As for why the Air Force needs a stealth aircraft to survey and recon light infantry forces, whose most advanced technologies range somewhere between the AK-47 and RPG levels, I won't venture to guess. (Others, however, have guessed: that the Beast may be operating in Afghanistan, but is spending more of its time spying on Pakistan and Iran. Hmmm.)

The future's uncertain ...
These were the headlines of 2009. But what will 2010 bring? New robotic planes for certain. New robotic helicopters. But before defense contractors can go on the offensive in airborne robotics, it might be best if they "secured the supply lines."

Perhaps the biggest story of 2009 came as it wound to a close. I'm speaking, of course, of the "SkyGrabber" scandal, in which Iraqi insurgents armed with a $26 software package were able to intercept the feeds from U.S.-operated UAVs. While the Pentagon assures us this problem has already been fixed, suffice it to say that while I don't distrust the statement, I expect there's money to be made in verifying that UAV transmissions are secure. This year, we're going to want to pay attention not just to companies that manufacture UAVs, but to firms like L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL  ) that program the software that control the birds' flight, and enable their visual transmissions to controllers on the ground.

Maybe the future belongs to "planes without pilots." But if one company can develop a unified system of command-and-control that can operate the things, no matter who manufactures 'em -- that's the one I really want to own.

Take a trip down memory lane, and review the greatest UAV hits from 2009:

Then step into our wayback machine, and relive the highlights of 2008:

Looking for other high-tech defense prospects for your portfolio? Check out Motley Fool Rule Breakers, where we're looking into options in everything from UAVs to missile defense, from bomb-proof trucks to bulletproof soldiers. Thirty-day free trials are available on-demand.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. (Actually, he doesn't own any stocks today, being "between brokers" at the moment.) But General Dynamics is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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