Hey! Who's Flying This Thing?

"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that."
-- Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff

It's been a few months since we last wrote about events in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry. But they haven't been uneventful months. Let's check in on what's new in the wonderful world of flying robots that kill.

Northrop Grumman: Robot overlord
Northrop Grumman
(NYSE: NOC  ) has basically monopolized UAV headlines these past few months. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the company's Fire Scout robotic helicopter has gone straight from test flights aboard warships in the Eastern Pacific to a $2.6 billion contract to enter mass production for the Navy.

And not just the Navy. In April, we learned that Northrop had delivered a Fire Scout system (consisting of three whirlybirds and supporting tech) to CENTCOM for deployment in Afghanistan. Last I heard, the Army wasn't too keen on the Fire Scout, preferring to make do with the General Atomics Predators, Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) Shadows, and other plane-based UAVs with which it was more familiar. Northrop shareholders can now hope a bit of hands-on experience will help change the Army's mind.

One if by land, 55 if by sea
Meanwhile, back at sea, the Fire Scout continues to fill helipads. It's already been deployed on a pair of USN frigates for trials, and in February the Navy confirmed that it has also run test flights off the deck of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship USS Freedom. The tests were described as "successful" and are being viewed as a green light to begin "fully incorporating the [Fire Scout] into LCS operations." As we've mentioned before, the Navy plans to float a fleet of 55 LCSes eventually. So even if United Technologies (NYSE: UTX  ) and Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) are now angling to build robotic helos of their own, it seems Northrop's market opportunity just got that much bigger.

Nor is Fire Scout the only trick Northrop has up its sleeve. As you're probably aware, even though the Fire Scout has been garnering plenty of press, it's still mainly a curiosity. ("What? A remote-controlled helicopter? Cool. I got one of those for my 13th birthday!") When there's heavy-lifting UAV work that needs doing, the Pentagon more often gives General Atomics a ring and orders up a Predator.

General Atomics, generally obsolete?
But perhaps not for long. According to Aviation Week, Northrop recently unveiled a new airplane-based UAV called the Firebird that aims to challenge the Predator's dominance. Unlike Predator, the Firebird is said to be big enough to carry a pilot when needed. It's also super-high-tech, hailing from the Scaled Composites workshop that Northrop bought back in 2007.

So … an (optionally) manned fighter jet, presumably bigger than the Predator. Is this the UAV we've been waiting for? The dogfighting robotic jet that can go toe-to-toe with manned "Soviet" MiGs, and win?

Um, no. For one thing, there are no more Soviets to fight (although there are still plenty of MiGs.) For another, according to AW, the top speed on the Firebird is going to be only about 230 mph. That's not fast enough to win a dogfight, or survive long against any modern fighter jet. But the plane could be big enough to serve as an airborne Sidewinder or AMRAAM platform. It's a start.

European vacation
Last but not least, speaking of things just getting started, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency this week announced that it's drafting guidelines to facilitate foreign purchases of U.S. UAVs. Why? Well, let's just say some of our allies haven't moved quite as aggressively as Boeing, L-3 (NYSE: LLL  ) , and Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) to get UAV prototypes off the ground.

Case in point: Over in Europe, French defense contractor Dassault recently signed a memorandum of understanding with partner BAE Systems in England. According to news reports, the companies hope to "establish a framework under which they may jointly pursue [the] long-term business opportunity" of creating a medium-altitude, long-endurance flying robot. In other words, they've drafted a memo to consider beginning a discussion to eventually build a UAV to be named later.

Hey! Slow down there, pardner! Let's not rush into anything.

Foolish takeaway
What does all this mean to investors? Here's how I think of it: Start with the Continent's slow factor in the UAV race. Then factor in the serious pressure European defense budgets are under these days -- arguably even worse than our own -- which will discourage significant investments in new tech.

To me, it seems unlikely Northrop and its U.S. peers will face real competition for international UAV sales any time soon. If I'm right, these companies should be able to capture the lion's share of overall growth in UAV sales -- and I'll bet Northrop gets more than its fair share of that. Meanwhile, Northrop's selling for 9 times earnings, pegged for 11% long-term earnings growth, and paying a 3.2% dividend.

So … you know that sound you hear, investor? That's opportunity knocking.

Want to keep up to date on Northrop Grumman's movements? Add the stock to your watchlist.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares of any company named above, but The Motley Fool owns shares of Northrop Grumman, Textron, and L-3 Communications Holdings, and Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of L-3 Communications Holdings.

We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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