For more than six months now, I've been tracking the rise in popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the U.S. military. It's been several months since I last wrote a comprehensive update of developments in the field, though. High time, I think, for a new installment of "Hey! Who's Flying This Thing?"

Big companies, tiny planes
Let's start with the biggest of the big. The latest iteration of Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) small UAV -- the Desert Hawk III -- has entered service with Britain's 47 Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. As you might expect from the unit flying the planes, the DHIII has found a purpose as a forward "spotter" for artillery fire; the Brits are also using it to "over watch" patrols on the ground.

But this is a case of good news-bad news for Lockheed. While deployment of the DHIII certainly counts as a success, the regiment has discovered a technical drawback. Specifically, while it can theoretically be launched by hand ("fired" off from a bungee cord), it performs best when launched from a moving vehicle. Sounds to this Fool like that's a strike against the DHIII relative to AeroVironment's (NASDAQ:AVAV) offerings such as the Puma and Raven, both of which don't appear to have the same need for speed at liftoff.

Meanwhile, Lockheed's having better luck with the logistics side of UAV work. On Monday, it announced the development of a UAV Airspace Management System to "deconflict groups of in-flight UAVs." (Translation: The software tries to keep UAVs from crashing into each other.)

Boeing's eagle eye gets sharper
Moving on to Boeing (NYSE:BA), the aerospace giant is testing an upgrade to its own small UAV, the ScanEagle. In cooperation with new acquisition Insitu and Goodrich (NYSE:GR), Boeing is mounting a short-wave infrared (SWIR) camera on ScanEagle to improve the bird's eyesight in fog and rain, as well as when targets do not emanate significant amounts of heat. (Hey, Axsys (NASDAQ:AXYS)? Watch your back.)

I just flew in from Iraq, and boy, are my arms tired
A moment ago I mentioned AeroVironment as a maker of small UAVs. Problem is, some of these little guys get tired out quick. Ever the innovator, AV came up with a novel solution: Stop flying.

Last week, AV won a $4.6 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), funding development of "hover/perch and stare" capability in its UAVs. Using its Wasp UAV as its guinea pig, AV will try to teach the critter to fly to a target location, land there, and keep an eye on things from a perched position. Ideally, once it's had an eyeful, the UAV would take flight once more, and fly back to base.

The planned Wasp evolution carries the less-than-aerodynamic working title of: "SP2S" -- for "Stealthy, Persistent, Perch and Stare." Let's hope AV can come up with something more elegant once it gets the thing built. My vote goes to the AeroVironment "Valley Quail." (Can you guess why?)

Look up ... way up
Coming full circle, we move finally to higher-altitude UAVs, where the latest news from the world of unmanned aeronautics comes once again from Merry Olde England. There, defense contractor QinetiQ (yes, the same guys who compete with iRobot (NYSE:IRBT) in the ground-hugging military robots space) is giving Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) a run for its money.

Northrop, as you may have heard, recently won a $25 million indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract to provide engineering and technical services to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, which will be using two of Northrop's Global Hawk high-altitude UAVs prototypes that the Air Force released to them. However, Northrop faces competition in the UAV market from QinetiQ which recently claimed the record for high-altitude flight endurance. Its solar-powered Zephyr UAV flew for more than 82.5 hours at altitudes passing 60,000 feet (aka 12 miles high!).

Foolish takeaway
The U.S. military booked more than 500,000 airborne UAV hours last year. It's expected to pass the million-hour mark this year. If the names of the companies playing in this space aren't enough to convince you of the need to invest here, then perhaps the 100% growth rate will.

This market is soaring. Don't miss your flight.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of AeroVironment, iRobot, and Boeing. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.