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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SolarEagle Unmanned Plane to Fly for 5 Years Without Landing

by Michael Graham Richard, Ottawa, Canada

boeing solar eagle drone photo
Photo: Boeing

First Flight Scheduled for 2014
It was a great accomplishment when the Zephyr solar plane spent over 2 weeks in the air. Some even dubbed it the "eternal plane". But it looks like the Zephyr is about to get some serious competition: Boeing just signed an $89 million contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the development of a solar plane that will be in a league of its own. Read on for more details.

The SolarEagle, pictured in the rendering above, is an unmanned aircraft powered by solar energy.
"SolarEagle is a uniquely configured, large unmanned aircraft designed to eventually remain on station at stratospheric altitudes for at least five years," said Pat O'Neil, Boeing Phantom Works program manager for Vulture II. "That's a daunting task, but Boeing has a highly reliable solar-electric design that will meet the challenge in order to perform persistent communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from altitudes above 60,000 feet." The aircraft will have highly efficient electric motors and propellers and a high-aspect-ratio, 400-foot wing for increased solar power and aerodynamic performance. (source)
The deal is for Boeing to build a full-scale demonstrator and fly it for the first time in 2014. The initial flight should be 30 days, beating the Zephyr's record (though by then maybe the Zephyr will have a new, longer record).

This isn't the only unmanned aircraft that Boeing is working on. We've previously written about the hydrogen-powered Phantom-Eye.

Military and Civilian Uses
Such a plane could one day replace satellites in some applications and allow scientific missions to be done at a much lower cost than sending a satellite in orbit. Of course, it will probably first be used by the military, but many technologies with civilian uses have first been developed by the deep pockets of the DoD.

Via Boeing, Smartplanet