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Launched from a tube, AeroVironment's Switchblade UAV can be wirelessly guided to strike targets as far as six miles away. Image source:
AeroVironment.

Since the introduction in 2011 of the Switchblade "kamikaze" drone, AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) has sold at least 1,500 of them to the U.S. military, and been paid in excess of $105 million for them. The Switchblade has become a big part of AeroVironment's business, and is likely to become an even bigger segment on the back of a new contract to upgrade the drone's electronics.

Or not.

Last month, you see, at the same time as AeroVironment was announcing plans to make its Switchblade drone even more secure, more useful to the military, and more profitable for itself, a new competitor arrived on the scene. As reported by UPI, rival defense contractor Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) has teamed up with Israeli weapons-maker Uvision to market the latter's Hero 30 manpack-able, canister-launched UAV as an alternative to AeroVironment's Switchblade.

Like the Switchblade, the Hero 30 is described as a loitering munition -- a tactical UAV that can remain airborne for some time, seeking out and observing a target, before being tasked to blow that target up by ramming it and detonating a small warhead in the drone's nosecone. But in many respects, the Hero 30 appears to provide a more capable solution than what AeroVironment has thus far marketed.

For example, Uvision describes its smallest Hero drone as battery-powered, tube-launched (i.e., fired from a mortar-like device), "man-pack portable," and similar in size to AeroVironment's Switchblade at just 3 kilograms (half a kilo of which is the warhead). Yet the Hero 30 is capable of remaining airborne for 30 minutes before its battery runs out, and boasts an operational range of up to 40 km, versus Switchblade's 10 km range. That's three times the endurance of Switchblade, and four times the range, for a drone of similar size.

What's more, Uvision has scaled up its smallest Hero drone to several larger sizes:

  • Hero 70 -- weighs 7 kg, offering twice Hero 30's warhead size, and 50% more endurance
  • Hero 120 -- 12.5 kg, three times more punch, and 60 minutes endurance
  • Hero 250 -- 25 kg, 20% of which is warhead, a 150 km range, and three hours of flight time
  • Hero 400 -- boasts a gasoline-powered engine, more endurance, more flight time, and a bigger warhead
  • And the top-of-the-line Hero 900 -- likewise gas-powered, with a range of 250 km and a 20 kg warhead

Not all of these variants are currently being offered to the U.S. military through Raytheon's partnership with Uvision -- but they could be. And for the time being, these options offer capabilities that AeroVironment is unable to match. Should the option of adding extra punch to a loitering munition be something the U.S. Army is in the market for, this could become a deciding factor in favor of choosing Raytheon's new offering over AeroVironment's Switchblade.

Indeed, even as the military continues buying AeroVironment drones, media reports suggest it's begun evaluating the Hero line of loitering munitions as well. Last year, Flightglobal reported a sale of the Hero 30 to the special forces of an unnamed non-Israeli nation. IHS Janes reports that as many as three international sales may already have taken place, and confirms one was to the U.S.

Better watch out, AeroVironment. You've got a bogey on your six.

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Uvision's Hero 30 -- three times as lethal as AeroVironment's lethal, loitering munition? Image source: Uvision.

Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 288 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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