It's still one week before AeroVironment (NAS: AVAV) reports numbers from the first quarter of its 2012 fiscal year, but already the little unmanned aerial vehicle maker is making headlines.

On Tuesday, the company announced the culmination of four years' work on a DARPA project to create a "stealthy, persistent, perch and stare" UAV. The robot in question is a vertical takeoff and landing UAV (a VTOL), meaning that it's basically a miniature helicopter, as opposed to a miniature airplane. As such, the new bird (now dubbed the "Shrike") has more in common with Boeing's (NYS: BA) A160T Hummingbird, or United Technologies' (NYS: UTX) robot Black Hawk than it does with, say, the General Atomics Predator drone.

One key difference is that the Shrike is smaller than the other robot helos I named. Much smaller. Weighing just 5 pounds, the Shrike is smaller than a breadbox and, more importantly, smaller than the standard bearer of this UAV type, Northrop Grumman's (NYS: NOC) Fire Scout, or Lockheed Martin's (NYS: LMT) new K-Max.

How small is it?
That's a good thing, because it means the Shrike is eminently portable. For the first time, AeroVironment has provided DARPA with a UAV that can be carried in a soldier's rucksack and launched from any surface, flying off to "perch" in place and "stare" at whatever the folks in camouflage want it to take a peek at. Once finished, the Shrike takes off, flies back to home base, and lands. According to AeroVironment's press release, the Shrike can fly for as long as 40 minutes on a single charge, hovering and keeping an eye on bad guys if there's no convenient place to perch, or setting down, conserving its energy, and streaming several hours of video back to its controller.

What's it mean to investors?
As new as the Shrike is, it's hard to say how big of a revenue opportunity this is. Honeywell (NYS: HON) never gained much traction with its similar-sized T-Hawk VTOL -- the flying coffee can discussed in columns past. But the Shrike was basically made to order for DARPA, and put together in record time. AeroVironment had a prototype in hand within three weeks of the agency asking the company if it could build the bird back in 2008. Now, just a few years later, it's got the kinks worked out and is ready to fly.

I know I'm impressed. Now let's see what the Pentagon, and AeroVironment investors, think of it.

How will the Shrike perform? How well will AV's stock perform? Add AeroVironment to your Fool Watchlist, and find out.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own or short any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 429 out of more than 180,000 members. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of AeroVironment.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

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