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US Army Spends $100 Million to Pick a Fresh Drone

The U.S. Army is looking for a few good drones

As recently as a few months ago it looked like it had found the drones it was looking for, settling upon privately held Martin UAV and publicly traded Textron NYSE:TXT to provide scout drones for it to experiment as potential replacements for the RQ- Shadow drones also built by Textron, incidentally that it has been applying up till now. In March, Martin and Textron were the only two firms out of competing to win hundred Million dollars contracts to supply units to be tested as part of the Army’s Future Tactical Unmanned Aerial Scheme FTUAS competition.

Now that competition has been blown wide open.

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Double the drones, double the fun

The late previous month the Pentagon announced in one of its daily briefings on contracts awarded to private contractors that not two, however, four separate firms will actually be allowed to bid to supply orders under a $. million umbrella contract for FTUAS.

Now, the good news for Textron investors is that Textron is still in the running. So is Martin UAV. The bad news is that two fresh contestants have been added to the competition: Privately held Arcturus UAV and Textron’s publicly traded rival LHarris NYSE: LHX -- named by the Pentagon under its old, pre-merger name L Technologies.

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And just like that, Textron’s chances of winning got cut in half.

Who caused that?

Each of these four firms brings something various to the table. In the case of Textron, for example, the firm is believed to be offering the Army its Aerosonde UAV, an -lb., -foot wingspan, catapult-launched drone with a range of nautical miles.

Martin UAV, the other firm to originally make the Army’s shortlist, will partner with defense giant Northrop Grumman NYSE: NOC to bid its V-Bat, a smaller vertical launch-and-landing UAV that’s rated to travel miles without refueling.

As for the fresh entrants actually, they were probably among the original field of contestants -- however, now they’re potential winners:

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Arcturus will be imitating Martin with a runway-independent, a vertical launch-and-landing scheme called the JUMP. Taking fuller advantage of the capabilities this method of launch permits, however, Arcturus’s robot-plane is larger than those of any of the others bidding -- more than feet in wingspan.

Finally, LHarris is expected to offer its APEX drone, a -foot wingspan aircraft that launches by catapult and boasts a range of concerning miles.

The envelope, please

Which of these four firms will win the Army’s business? That remains up in the air so to speak. If I had to place a bet, though, I honestly believe that the privately owned contestants appear to have more innovative products here.

While all four birds appear to meet the Army’s requirement for a runway-independent drone that has to launch from anywhere, L’s and Textron’s entries do require extra equipment in the form of a catapult to launch them. And then there’s the question of how to land them after they’re launched. In contrast, both Martin and Arcturus have worked around this obstacle quite effectively, making their drones capable of vertical launch and vertical landing.

If I were to further opine on which of those two drones has the edge, though, I think I’d have to say that Martin UAV has the better shot. For one thing, it’s working with Northrop Grumman to build its UAV, which gives it an immediate in with the defense establishment. For another, Northrop already won one big military drone contract involving vertically launched drones when the Navy picked its giant TERN to become the fresh go-to drone for Navy warships that are not aircraft carriers.

Granted, a win here would move the needle a lot more for Textron, which does only concerning $. billion in annual revenue, then it would for Northrop Grumman, which clocks in at nearly billions of dollars in annual sales. Regardless, based on the facts as we know them today, I have to give the edge to Martin UAV -- and Northrop.

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