Buying Into Aviation's Unmanned Future


Unmanned aerial vehicles are all the rage these days. The military has at least 7,500 in action today, compared to just under 11,000 old-fashioned manned aircraft. Contractors with the early drone-tech lead are likely to reap windfalls from commercial drones, which are coming sooner than you may think. The latest FAA Reauthorization Act mandates the development of regulations for commercial UAVs by 2015. That could lead to a 30,000-strong drone swarm over American skies by the end of the decade. Let's find out what today's drones are made of so we can be ready for tomorrow's successes.

Up, up, and away
UAVs have been around since 1916, when an enterprising military contractor looked at a torpedo and thought it would be more effective with wings. It took many decades to construct something more reusable, and only recently have UAVs really taken off (pardon the pun). Only 5% of the military's aircraft were unmanned in 2005. That percentage is obviously much higher now.

AeroVironment's (NAS: AVAV) Raven is a big contributor to the surprisingly large drone total: The Army had almost 5,400 at the start of the year. Mass-produced since 2006, this tiny snoop is little more than a high-tech model airplane with a video camera. This might be a good drone partner for both police forces and news agencies covering rowdy crowds, but its small size also limits its flight time to an hour and a half and its cruising range to a six-mile radius from its operator.

Reporting for shipping duty
Most Americans (and a few unlucky terrorists) are more familiar with the General Atomics line of UAVs, which come closer to full-size aircraft replacements. Just this past week, the public learned that a CIA drone killed al-Qaida's second-in-command, and the responsible bot may well have been a GA Predator drone. That doesn't exactly translate into civilian use. Late-model Predators can carry nearly two tons of payload, which isn't much compared to a Boeing (NYS: BA) 747-8 freighter's 154-ton capacity. Taking off and landing would require too much room to make Predator-size drones much use for short-haul transport, and over the long haul its payload is simply too puny.

Boeing, Northrop Grumman (NYS: NOC) , and Lockheed Martin (NYS: LMT) all have fixed-wing UAVs in action or in development, as do a number of foreign and private defense contractors. The most sensible commercial use for fixed-wing designs seems to be long-haul transport, and larger craft make more sense. Boeing ought to get the edge in that race due to its successful commercial aircraft history. FedEx (NYS: FDX) and UPS seem ideal customers, though I wouldn't expect widespread adoption to happen in this decade.

FedEx pays its pilots well: The pilot pay-tracking website Will Fly for Food shows that the shipping titan paid its captains about $200 an hour in the air. Pilots' uneven schedules don't work out to a standard 40-hour workweek, but many will make $150,000 a year or more. Don't forget the need for first officers, who can make well over $100 per hour in the air. Significantly reducing the pilot roster could save hundreds of millions annually across FedEx's fleet of 654 aircraft. However, that barely scratches the surface of the 30,000-strong drone swarm.

Landing on a dime
Where will the other thousands come from? Most likely from helicopter-style UAVs, which require much less room to take off and land and thus make much better short-range options.

AeroVironment already has one of the smallest such machines, barely larger than a hummingbird. The device is actually called the "Nano Hummingbird" and fits in the palm of a user's hand. Its range and flight time are very limited, but the technology is interesting. If scaled up for longer flight times, it could be a much better recon option than the Raven and possibly a great way to get aerial video of sporting events.

Don't count the big contractors out of the helicopter drone race, though. Northrop's Fire Scout helicopter UAV is already serving as recon and targeting support for the military. It's a small contraption by commercial standards, capable of carrying about 600 pounds at the most. Boeing's A160 Hummingbird is pushing the boundaries of helicopter flight, but it hasn't entered full-time service yet. Both the A160 and Lockheed's UAV retrofit of the Kaman K-MAX helicopter (which showed up for duty in Afghanistan last year) have proven able to carry three tons of payload at a time.

Warehouses might send these helicopter UAVs out for home or business deliveries. Unwieldy equipment could be hoisted and transported as the crow flies, rather than being trucked on highways, saving time, fuel, and manpower for industrial clients.

These are, of course, purely hypothetical scenarios for the time being, but entrepreneurial sorts have already dreamed up similar applications. A brilliant hoax business called Tacocopter caused an online sensation earlier this year, promising to deliver tacos with unmanned helicopters. Though this isn't yet legal, the FAA should have rules in place for such situations by 2015. After that, who knows? A decade from now the skies might be full of unmanned aircraft, shipping everything from tacos to grand pianos right to your door.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of AeroVironment and FedEx. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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