It's not the plot of a late-night "B" science fiction movie: the skies over your neighborhood will soon be darkened with scores of pilot-less aircraft. If you're looking for a wealth-building investment theme, this unstoppable technological trend certainly qualifies.
Below, we examine AeroVironment (AVAV - Get Report) and Raytheon (RTN - Get Report) , the two best stocks to profit from the accelerating drone revolution. Both companies have the financial strength and resources to address surging demand and to best emerging competitors. Shares of both companies fell slightly in Friday trading.
The numbers of individuals registering drones and applying for drone pilot licenses has increased to such a stunning degree, Federal Aviation Administration officials announced Friday they are bracing for the likelihood of millions (yep, millions) of unmanned aircraft filling the nation's skies.
In the nine months since the FAA launched a drone registration system, more than 550,000 unmanned aircraft have been registered with the agency. At the first meeting of a new government-industry drone advisory committee, FAA officials revealed that new registrations are pouring in at a rate of 2,000 a day. To put these numbers into context, consider that 260,165 manned aircraft are registered in the U.S.
Less than a month ago, the FAA started handing out drone pilot licenses to commercial operators. Already, 13,710 people have applied to take the pilot exam, and 5,080 have passed it. The FAA now forecasts there will be more than 1.3 million licensed drone pilots by 2020.
In addition to a burgeoning number of commercial uses for drones, such as agriculture, pipeline inspection and Hollywood film-making, scores of hobbyists are buying drones at local stores or online and taking to the skies with a passion. It's the rise of a new subculture, spelling multi-year profits for the dominant companies already in the space.
NASA is working with drone industry and the FAA to forge a new low-altitude air traffic control system specifically for drones, which would expedite the plans of companies such as Amazon and even Chipotle Mexican Grill, which want to use drones for deliveries.
That's right, Chipotle wants to use drones. Google parent company Alphabet is teaming up with fast casual chain Chipotle to test drone delivery of food for Virginia Tech students. Even burritos are taking wing these days.
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AeroVironment has military clients and is the largest maker of commercial drones in the U.S. The company would benefit the most from the mainstreaming of small-scale civilian drones, because these devices are its specialty.
Defense contractor Raytheon makes the ultra-sophisticated sensors without which drones can't fly. To fly by remote control and perform their pre-set tasks, drones require sensors. These sensors don't come cheap and account for nearly half of a UAV's total units cost.
Raytheon's sensor segment produces the sensors that provide UAVs with the ability to see and avoid obstacles and locate targets. The diversified company also makes expensive missile systems such as Israel's "Iron Dome."
As thinly capitalized start-ups proliferate in the drone industry, these two companies dominate the industry and should survive the coming shakeout.
(Full disclosure: The author moderated a panel discussion of venture capitalists and major drone investors at the InterDrone conference in Las Vegas last week.)
Analysts estimate that AeroVironment will rack up annual earnings per share (EPS) of 28 cents in 2017, compared to 10 cents in 2016 (and 13 cents in 2015). As of July 30, 2016, the company boasted a funded backlog of $74.7 million compared to $65.8 million as of April 30, 2016.
Shares of AeroVironment now trade at a little over $23; the average analyst consensus estimate for a one-year price target is about $31, implying a gain of 35%.
Analysts estimate that Raytheon will post EPS of $7.74 in 2017, compared to an estimated full-year EPS of $7.41 in 2016 (and versus $6.76 in 2015).
Shares of Raytheon now trade slightly below $137; the average analyst consensus estimate for a one-year price target is about $155, implying a gain of 13%.
Now's the time to invest in the drone trend, before the herd recognizes the obvious and bids up the share prices of these two solid investment opportunities.
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