General Atomics. It's probably the most famous company in the defense and aerospace industry -- that you cannot own.

military drone

Image source: Getty Images.

Given that the company's Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles kick-started the "drone" era, a lot of investors wish we could own a piece of General Atomics. But since it's a privately owned company -- not publicly traded on the stock market -- we can't.

But you can still own a piece of General Atomics' profits.

Drones for the Netherlands
How? Well, take this latest news item, for example. Last week, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or DSCA -- the office responsible for coordinating military sales between foreign governments and U.S. defense contractors like General Atomics and its drone-making rivals such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman -- notified Congress of an upcoming drone sale from General Atomics to the Netherlands.

The core of the contract -- valued at $339 million by DSCA -- concerns the sale of four MQ-9 Block 5 "Reaper" drones built by General Atomics. A couple of years ago, the French Air Force requested authorization to buy 15 of these drones from GA (for $1.5 billion). And it seems the Netherlands thought it was such a keen idea that they want to buy some, too.

Along with the drones themselves, the Netherlands will be acquiring such related equipment as mobile ground control stations, SATCOM Earth terminal subsystems, and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders (but no bombs or missiles -- these drones will be unarmed and used only for surveillance). But the Dutch will also pay for "6 Honeywell TPE331-10T Turboprop Engines (4 installed and 2 spares)."

What it means to investors
And it's here that you, the investor, come in. Because unlike General Atomics, Honeywell (NASDAQ:HON) is a publicly traded company. When General Atomics sells a drone to a country like the Netherlands, or France, or even the U.S., Honeywell books a sale for the engines that drive the drones -- and anyone who owns shares in Honeywell gets to profit from that GA sale.

How much might we profit? Most of us are probably most familiar with Honeywell for its household products -- the thermostats on our walls, or the humidifiers running overtime in the dry winter months. But Honeywell's biggest business is actually in Aerospace products, such as the engines that go into the Reaper. These brought in $15.6 billion in revenue for Honeywell last year -- about $0.39 out of every $1 Honeywell collected from all sources, according to S&P Capital IQ. With Aerospace earning an operating profit margin of 18.7%, these revenues are not just Honeywell's biggest business -- they are its most profitable, too.

All of which is not to say that owning a share of Honeywell is equivalent to owning a share of General Atomics. It isn't. Honeywell's a much bigger business -- more than $40 billion annually -- and Reaper engines are just one small part of it. But buying a share of Honeywell is a way to own an interest in a profitable, $40 billion global conglomerate, and get a piece of General Atomics' business in the process.

That's not a bad thing.

General Atomics' Predator: The drone that started it all. Source: General Atomics.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.