Defense contractor Northrop Grumman (NOC 0.65%) is taking the drone world by storm.

A few years back, Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that in his opinion, at least, Lockheed Martin's (LMT 0.05%) F-35 fighter jet would be "the last manned fighter" the U.S. ever builds. Northrop quickly took the message to heart.

Ever since then, the company that gave us high-tech piloted combat aircraft such as the B-2 bomber, E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, and A-6 Intruder has focused its efforts on developing a fleet of pilotless drones to serve the U.S. military, including:

  • The most capable robotic flying helicopter in the world -- the MQ-8 Fire Scout.
  • An unmanned aerial vehicle that soars higher, flies faster, and stays aloft longer than the famous General Atomics Predator drone -- the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
  • The world's smallest electronic warfare aircraft -- the Bat.

This Bat can see in the daylight, too. Source: Northrop Grumman.

Invented some years ago, Northrop's Bat UAV hasn't seen much use by the military before now. The Bat, 6 feet long with a 12-foot wingspan, can achieve speeds of just over 100 mph, fly at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet, and carry a payload weighing as much as 100 pounds.

For bombs, that's not a whole lot of weight to be toting around, granted. But thanks to the magic of miniaturization, you can pack a whole lot of electronics into 100 pounds. And so Northrop thought to itself, "What if we packed an electronic warfare package aboard the Bat?"

Well, what if you did?
And now, they've done that. On Thursday, Northrop confirmed that for the first time in history, it sent an electronic warfare-equipped small tactical UAV to participate in the U.S. Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics exercise, which took place at China Lake, Calif., last month. Equipped with a Pandora "electronic attack payload" designed to jam enemy radars, the Bat demonstrated its capabilities in exercises alongside both other UAVs and manned aircraft.

Did the Bat perform well enough to finally interest the military in buying a few of the birds? This, we don't yet know. Other companies are experimenting in this space as well, after all -- notably Raytheon (RTN), with its missile-based MALD-J e-warfare drone. But crucially, Northrop notes that in a constrained defense spending environment, its new electronic warfare-equipped Bat boasts "capabilities that can normally only be achieved by larger, more expensive unmanned aircraft." So by continuing to innovate, Northrop has potentially put a new tool in the toolkits of our nation's warfighters.

Whether they choose to use it is up to them.