Is it just me, or does it seem like AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV ) has been on a bit of a PR binge of late?
Last Friday, the company announced a $7.7 million contract to sell Raven small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to the Dutch Ministry of Defense -- a small contract, to be sure, but small is what AV does. A few days before that, the news was of a contract win from DARPA, which hired AV to produce an experimental "Nano" air vehicle -- a gadget heretofore only rumored, now apparently evolving into a real-life product.
And as if a pair of contract wins weren't enough, AV has gone out and hawked itself (Raven-ed itself?) to Wall Street twice in as many weeks. In the Fool's continuing effort to listen to these investor conferences "so you don't have to," I listened in and am here to report back on the news AV revealed.
Who said what, where, and when
On Wednesday this week, as well as on Thursday last week, AV's CEO and IR Director headed to the Big Apple to present the company's case at investment conferences hosted by Stephens Inc. and FBR, respectively. What follows are a few highlights on the firm's three main product lines:
- "Architectural wind"
UAS is the big story at AV. Basically, we're talking here about high-tech model airplanes -- small enough that soldiers can carry them into the field, simple enough to be snapped together and launched in two minutes flat, and useful enough that soldiers will be inclined to do both.
AV sells both one-pound Wasps and four-pound Ravens. It's developing a kamikaze version of the Wasp, called the "Switchblade," which can not only take video of on-the-ground targets, but if need be, can ram them and blow them up. It has an experimental "Puma" UAS, which has used Millennium Cell (Nasdaq: MCEL ) technology to demonstrate the feasibility of powering UAS with fuel cells. And finally, AV is working on a huge "Global Observer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to patrol the stratosphere while powered by -- you guessed it -- fuel cells.
What was new (at least to me) was that AV clarified why its products make such a sudden and exponential jump in size from UA-small to UA-gigantic. Essentially, this is a "hit 'em where they ain't” strategy. Seeing the frenzied competition among giants like Northrop (NYSE: NOC ) , Textron (NYSE: TXT ) , Boeing (NYSE: BA ) , and Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) within the category of medium-sized UAVs, AV has Foolishly elected to target niches where there are gaps to be filled.
Also a revelation (again, to me) was just how successful AV has been with this approach. AV has thrice competed for UAS contracts with the U.S. military. In each case, rivals ranged in size from start-ups to a coyly described "second largest aerospace firm in the world" (which sounds to me like Lockheed (NYSE: LMT ) , but may refer to Boeing). And in all three cases, AV beat the competition and won the contract. Management attributed its wins to:
- The firm's decade-long experience working with military customers.
- The "extraordinary reliability" of its products in harsh environments that the competition may not have been ready for.
- The integration of the product lines -- all of the major UAS units share a common hand-held controller.
- The fact that AV's business covers the full range from design to manufacturing to post-sale support of its products.
While I suspect this explanation incorporates at least a small dose of "puffery," it's hard to argue with success -- and so far, AV is batting 1.000.
The other 10%
If it seems like I've spent nearly 90% of this column talking about UAVs, there's a reason for that: AV gets nearly 90% of its revenue from building high-tech model airplanes. But management did give us a bit of color on its other two product lines. Let me give you just a tidbit on each.
First, Posicharge -- the company's product for recharging batteries in record time. Until I listened to the conference presentations, "record time" sounded a bit vague to me. So here's something to make it more concrete. In a recent demonstration, AV showed a Posicharge unit fully recharging a 35 kWh lithium ion battery pack in less than 10 minutes. Speaking from the perspective of a guy who routinely spends five hours recharging four rechargeable AAs for my wireless mouse, that sounds fast.
Second, "architectural wind." Picture your 12-inch-tall office desk fan. Now scale it up, bolt it to the parapet of your office building, and let the wind rush through it, producing a kilowatt of free electricity. Add to this the "green cred" of having your business visibly using renewable energy -- something that flat rooftop solar panels don't provide -- and this idea no longer seems quite as silly as I first thought.
But still, nothing’s quite as cool as flying robots. Of course, the question still remains: Will these things sell? If they do, AeroVironment will continue to be in the news wires.
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