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

Welcome back, Fools, to the latest installment of our continuing coverage of flying model airplanes ... that kill. Unmanned aerial vehicles, that is, or "UAVs" for short.

It's been a little over a month since we last sent in an update from the field, and things are evolving fast. Let's not lose a march on 'em, but dive right into the news. And let's do it quick, because things are starting to get just a wee bit dangerous out there in UAV-land.

Boeing gets violent
Remember the good ol' days, when UAVs spent most of their time floating up in the clouds, snapping Polaroids?

No longer. Today's UAVs are packing some serious heat. Take Boeing's (NYSE:BA) venerable ScanEagle for instance. Perhaps best known for its role in taking out the Somali pirates who hijacked the Maersk Alabama and kidnapped Capt. Richard Philips earlier this year, the ScanEagle has always been the consummate looky-loo. But Boeing's now working up a new variant -- the "ScanEagle Compressed Carriage" (SECC) that can do a whole lot more than just look.

Designed to piggyback on a larger vehicle, the SECC might be carried on the wing of a piloted F-15, or launched from submarines. But that's just the start of the modifications. Once launched, the SECC will carry a payload of its own -- bombs, for example, which it could drop on bad guys before returning to the mothership for rearmament.

Imagine, if you will, a single fighter jet carrying perhaps a handful of killer UAVs, which detach and zoom off in separate directions to find and attack targets of their own. Now you've got the picture.

Flying minefields?
But searching out your targets is such tedious work. Wouldn't it be simpler if the bad guys would just come to you for the killing?

Over in England, that's just the thinking at AESIR, a little UAV maker that's come up with a big idea -- planting minefields above the ground. Way above. The firm's new "Odin" Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) UAV looks a lot like Honeywell's (NYSE:HON) T-Hawk, but with a twist. Its rotary internal combustion engine can lift a 10kg payload, keep it airborne, and then just "loiter" around for about an hour. And if that payload should happen to be a bomb ... don't look up!

On your mark, get set, bid!
But the biggest news in UAV-dom this month is, as always, right here in the U.S. of A. The U.S. Navy/Marine Corps and the Air Force have put forward two development deals, dubbed "STUAS/Tier II" and "MQ-X" respectively. These projects aim to bring some semblance of order to the ad hoc process for procuring military UAVs.

What's more, the winner(s) could become the de facto leader(s) in the UAV space. In defense contracting, size really does matter. Whoever wins these contracts will gain efficiencies of scale, giving them an edge on pricing for future contracts. They'll develop expertise in UAV technology, and may even become the military's "go-to guys" for UAV procurement. Here's a quick rundown of the projects:

Historically (albeit, the history is short), the U.S. Navy has relied upon Boeing and its 38-lb. ScanEagle to service its UAV needs. But STUAS/Tier II aims to develop a next generation UAV to replace ScanEagle. Ideally, the new bird will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 lbs. in weight, and capable of flying for at least 10, and as many as 24 hours without refueling.

Upwards of a dozen firms are vying for the contract, but the leading contenders appear to be Textron's (NYSE:TXT) Aerosonde Mk. 4.7, Boeing's Integrator, the UAV Dynamics Storm (built jointly by General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) and Elbit Systems) and Raytheon's (NYSE:RTN) KillerBee-4.

Reportedly worth upwards of $450 million, STUAS/Tier II calls for an initial run of 56 UAV "systems" comprised of three or four UAVs each, and an eventual total of 200 UAVs. The contract could be awarded as early as next month, but low-rate initial production won't begin before Q3 2010, with larger scale deliveries starting in 2012.

Meanwhile, the USAF is busy developing its own requirements for a new UAV system. "MQ-X" will roll out in three stages, dubbed:

  • MQ-Ma, a UAV incrementally improving upon the current generation of General Atomics-manufactured Predators and Reapers.
  • And MQ-Mb and -Mc. These latter drones will become increasingly sophisticated, working toward General Mullen's goal of a pilotless Air Force, whose drones could conceivably do battle with honest-to-goodness piloted fighter jets.

Foolish final thought
General Atomics probably has the lead in the MQ-X competition based on its existing Predator and Reaper fleets, and its development of a jet-propelled "Predator C." Personally, though, I'd love to see one of the publicly traded defense contractors -- Boeing and its "Phantom Ray," Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) with the X-47B, and perhaps even a Raytheon KillerBee-4 or Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) Dark Star or Polecat UAV -- build a better mousetrap.

Not only would it be good news for the troops (nearly one-third of the 200 Predators delivered to-date have "died" as a result of aircraft malfunction or pilot error), but as an investor, I'd like to have a chance to buy a piece of this growing industry.

That's all for now. Until next time, happy flying, and Fool on!

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Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick, General Dynamics is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection, and Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing. The Motley Fool is positively militant about disclosure.