Meet the Most Advanced Drone in the World Today

By Rich Smith Markets Fool.com

According to the tech experts at PC Magazine, eight of the 10 best drones in the world today are made in China, and the remaining two in France. But the most advanced drone in the world today?

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That's made in the U.S. of A. (baby!).

It's true. French-made "Parrots" and Chinese-branded "DJI Phantoms" are all the rage among consumer drone enthusiasts. But the best military drones still come from America, and the very best of them are the advanced, jet-powered drones coming out of military contractor Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc. (NASDAQ: KTOS) -- in particular, the company's newest U.S. Air Force drone, the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration ("LCASD," for short).

Kratos Defense's BQM-167A target drone is evolving into the Air Force's new LCASD advanced military drone. Image source: Kratos Defense & Security.

Made in the U.S.A.

The Air Force awarded Kratos the contractto develop LCASD on July 11, 2016, as part of a $41 million, 30-month-long contract -- largely funded by Kratos itself. As Kratos explained at the time, the Air Force is looking to develop a fleet of advanced military drones that can fly "wingman" to manned fighter jets.

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That's a mission that most propeller-driven drones in production today -- commercial and military -- simply can't complete. General Atomics' Reaper drone, for example, which is replacing the ubiquitous Predator, tops out at an airspeed of 300 mph. To keep up with piloted fighter jets, Kratos was asked to build a jet-powered combat drone capable of operating at speeds in excess of Mach 0.9 -- 690 miles per hour, or 90% the speed of sound.

LCASD is also being designed to:

  • Approximate a fighter jet's capability to conduct high-g-force maneuvers.
  • Fly 1,500 nautical miles in a combat radius.
  • Launch and land without runways.
  • Carry a 500-pound weapons payload -- sufficient for two GBU-39 small diameter bombs, or up to four Hellfire missiles.

In other words, not only will LCASD be the most advanced drone ever built, it will be a fully functional combat drone capable of flying formation with piloted fighter jets, and complementing their ability to attack ground targets.

Already made in America

And that's not all. While technically the Air Force has hired Kratos to "develop" LCASD, Kratos already has a working prototype military drone that closely approximates the requirements the Air Force drew up for LCASD. (Which probably is no coincidence.)

Kratos' internally developed UTAP-22 "Tornado" drone, which was itself derived from Kratos' advanced BQM-167A high-performance, remotely controlled subscale aerial target drone, is itself a miniature fighter jet. The 20-foot-long, 10-foot-wingspan jet can hit top speeds of Mach 0.91, and boasts a 1,400-nautical-mile range of operation and the ability to fly at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet. In many respects, it met the Air Force's requirements for an "LCASD" drone before the Air Force even put pen to paper -- and the Tornado is already flying today.

Developing UTAP cost Kratos tens of millions of dollars, and completing development of LCASD for the Air Force is expected to cost tens of millions of dollarsmore. But if it pays off in the form of contracts for the purchase of dozens, or even hundreds, of advanced drones for the military -- at prices projected to average $2 million to $3 million apiece -- it's an investment that will be worth it.

Kratos has already built the best drone in the world. Now it just needs to convince the Pentagon to buy them in volume.

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Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.