"Hey! Who's Flying This Thing?" 2009 Edition



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2008 was a great year for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Will 2009 be as grand? Today we begin the sixth installment in our million-part series: "Hey! Who's Flying This Thing?" and take our latest peek within the exciting world of flying model airplanes ... that kill.

Start off 2009 with a bang!
Think the U.S. Air Force is the only military that knows how to blow up bad guys from afar? Think again. As 2008 rolled over into 2009, Israel's Defense Ministry gave us the latest demonstration of UAVs in action. According to Britain's Sunday Times, the Israeli Defense Forces used unmanned drones to attack Iranian truck convoys in Sudan earlier this year -- twice. (The Iranians were said to be ferrying rocket parts to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, an activity you might imagine the Israelis did not look kindly upon.)

Sources on the story added one tidbit of interest to defense investors. Specifically, the Israelis used drones to bomb the convoys because: "When you attack a fixed target ... you are better off using jet aircraft. But with a moving target with no definite time for the move, UAVs ... are best, as they can hover extremely high and remain unseen until the target is on the move."

Score this engagement: Israel - 1, Hamas - minus 50 K.I.A. But let's also give a few points to Israel's Elbit Systems (Nasdaq: ESLT), whose Hermes-450 UAV conducted the bombing runs.

And speaking of Israel ...
It's making quite a name for itself in the UAV space. Not long after Sudan, Russia tapped Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to sell it $50 million worth of UAVs. Reportedly, Russia ordered a smorgasbord of three designs: the Bird-Eye 400, the I-View MK150, and the Search MK II. The relatively small size of the sale, and wide variety of systems being purchased, suggests that this is less an effort by Russia to outsource its UAV capability, and more a confirmation of my guess last year that the Russians want to reverse-engineer Israel's drones to build UAVs of their own.

Good luck. According to RIA-Novosti, Russia aims to develop a fleet of at least 100 UAVs with flight ranges of up to 240 miles, and airborne endurance of 12 hours or more. None of the IAI drones being purchased so far match such specs, however. This suggests Russia could still be years away from developing a decent homegrown UAV.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...
Closer to home, UAV developments continue apace. Late in April, we saw a flurry of reports regarding the fate of Swift Engineering's KillerBee UAV. One source reported that Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) had reacquired rights to the KillerBee, and then promptly renamed it the "Bat."

No sooner had this news broken than a series of press releases emerged from the company that had more recently been generating buzz (sorry) on KillerBee: Raytheon (NYSE: RTN).

On May 1, Raytheon announced that it had "purchased rights to the technology and name of the KillerBee unmanned aircraft system from Northrop Grumman" (emphasis added.) Four days later, Raytheon released test results that purported to prove the KillerBee's ability to land on the deck of a moving warship at sea (a test actually conducted on land).

What's it all mean to investors? My best guess is that Northrop is holding onto the key KillerBee technology, albeit renamed the "Bat." It has, however, licensed the actual KillerBee, its name, and technology specific to it, to Raytheon for further development. In which case, I have to wonder whether this was a truly wise decision on Northrop's part.

I mean, assume Raytheon is correct in saying that the KillerBee can land at sea. In this case, Northrop hasn't so much sold a name, as bought a new competitor. Already, AeroVironment's (Nasdaq: AVAV) Aqua Puma has proven its ability to ditch and be recovered at sea. Northrop is offering the U.S. Navy its Fire Scout unmanned helicopter as ideal for missions at sea. Now it looks like Raytheon may soon compete for water-borne UAV projects as well. (Then again, Northrop already competes with everybody from Honeywell (NYSE: HON) to Textron (NYSE: TXT) to ... pretty much every other UAV maker mentioned in this article on land -- and seems to be doing just fine.)

Foolish final thought
Just a couple of weeks ago, Boeing's (NYSE: BA) stock enjoyed an uncharacteristic surge in response to what was apparently pretty piddling news -- revenue-wise -- to the aerospace giant. Specifically, Boeing won a $250 million contract to provide the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a new remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft system. More specific still, a "Mid Endurance Unmanned Aircraft System."

Just how durable is "mid endurance?" Is the contract for Boeing's ScanEagle UAV or for something new? Your guess is as good as mine, but rest assured that I'll keep an eye out for further details as they emerge.

Stay tuned to the Fool as we continue our quest to learn: "Hey! Who's flying this thing?"

Looking for other high-tech defense prospects for your portfolio? Check out Motley Fool Rule Breakers, where we're looking into options in everything from UAVs to missile defense, from bombproof trucks to bulletproof soldiers. 30-day free trials are available on-demand.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of AeroVironment and Boeing. AeroVironment is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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