Boeing (NYSE: BA), afraid of falling behind in the drone wars, is building an unmanned aerial vehicle, but without the guarantees of a Defense Department contract.

Boeing's attempt at playing catchup comes after it lost the battle for a $635.8 million Navy contract to build a UAV capable of aircraft carrier take-offs and landings. That contract went to Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), whose new drone is a stealthy flying wing called the X-47B. Northrop Grumman also already produces the Global Hawk, a long-range surveillance drone.

The current king of drone makers is General Atomics, a privately held company. It produces the Predator and Reaper, the UAVs most used for surveillance and hunter-killer missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. General Atomics is also developing a next-generation combat drone, the Avenger.

Revenge of the Phantom Ray
Looking like a Cylon fighter out of Battlestar Galactica, Boeing's UAV, named the Phantom Ray, had its first flight on April 27. Boeing currently sees the Phantom Ray as a test bed for autonomous (preprogrammed) flying capabilities. It also envisions using the drone for surveillance, ground attacks, and aerial refueling missions.

There's much about UAVs that the military finds is attractive. Not only can they carry out dangerous missions without putting pilots in harm's way, but they can also stay on station much longer than a piloted plane can -- up to 30 hours for current drones. And then there's the bottom line. If you consider the cost of an F-22 strike fighter at about $143 million each, the current price tag for Boeing's Phantom Ray -- $60 million to $70 million -- makes sense for shrinking defense budgets.

The giant gets up off the mat
Boeing took a kick to the teeth when it lost the Joint Strike Fighter competition to Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) a decade ago, but it regained its composure after finally winning the Air Force's $30 billion aerial-refueling-tanker contract last February. It beat out EADS for the deal after a long, tough, and politically controversial fight.

Besides the obvious advantages that UAVs give the military, a look into the crystal ball shows a potential payoff for unmanned flight in the civilian theater of operations as well. If you're interested in following Boeing, add it to My Watchlist.

Fool contributor Dan Radovsky has no position in any of the companies mentioned.

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