What happens when the biggest defense contractor in the world, Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), teams up with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to build a robot? They build a Transformer. Yes, you read that correctly, Lockheed is building a Transformer. And it flies.
According to Kevin Renshaw, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works' lead on Transformer, "Transporting and resupplying troops in rugged, austere terrain has become a major challenge, especially as the U.S. military shifts to using smaller and more distributed combat units." Consequently, DARPA solicited companies to come up with a solution, under its Transformer program, and this resulted in the Transformer TX -- which Lockheed and its partner on the project, Piasecki Aircraft, intend to build.
The Transformer TX is an unmanned helicopter that's capable of vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL. Further, it has a smaller footprint than a conventional helicopter, and Lockheed says, "Transformer's tilting ducted fans allow for a safer operating environment in smaller landing zones with faster transit speeds of up to 200 knots." More pointedly, the Transformer TX can land in an area half the size of what a conventional helicopter requires, and it's safer and more efficient.
More impressively, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Transformer TX is "an unmanned payload transport system that can deliver just about anything. Even a car, with you in it." That makes the Transformer TX an autonomous robotic delivery system that can deliver a payload similar to what a conventional helicopter can deliver. Plus, the Transformer TX has a 250-mile range.
Lockheed doubles down on unmanned helicopters
The Transformer TX isn't Lockheed's first venture into unmanned VTOL systems. Previously, Lockheed and Kaman Aerospace (NYSE:KAMN) successfully transformed a K-MAX helicopter into an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, and the Marines were so impressed by its capabilities that they extended the K-MAX demonstration indefinitely. Since 2007, the K-MAX has racked up 750 hours in autonomous mode.
That previous experience no doubt helped with the Transformer TX, and DARPA was so impressed by the preliminary design, it awarded Lockheed $20.3 million to build a prototype system. The next stage is the Critical Design Review, and if that goes well, DARPA can exercise a further option to build and then fly the prototype in 2015.
What to watch
Regardless of DARPA's decision, Lockheed and Piasecki have said they intend to build the Transformer TX and could start flight testing as early as 2015 -- and if all goes well, the Transformer TX could be a game-changer. With the ability to deliver similar payloads, and land in smaller areas, the Transformer TX could be exactly what combat units need. Further, it could replace conventional helicopters, as Lockheed says the Transformer TX is safer and more efficient than what's currently available. Consequently, this is something investors should watch.
Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter: @TMFKSpence. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.