The US defense department wants a drone which would stay aloft for five years and Boeing has stepped up to the plate. Boeing is building a prototype of a solar-electric drone called the Solar Eagle which they plan to test in 2013. The plane could be a pseudo-satellite for communication, reconnaissance and earth-monitoring.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is paying The Boeing Co., $89 million to build a huge, solar-powered, robotic aircraft that can carry 1,000 pounds of sensors and other payloads for five years at a stretch.
The plane Solar Eagle, would need to be virtually maintenance-free and highly energy efficient. Well over half the plane, which spans 400 feet from wing to wing, will be covered with solar arrays to harvest energy from the sun. The power needs to be stored onboard so the plane can fly by night, as well as power payloads.
The Defense department wants the plane to be as dependent as a satellite with the added benefit of being able to be brought back and put back up as and when needed. It would be flying above 65,000 feet- twice the altitude of a commercial flight!
In July of 2010 The Zephyr – broke the official world record time for the longest duration unmanned flight. Zephyr was launched at 06:41 (MST) on 09 July 2010 and stayed aloft for 14 nights (336 hrs / 22 minutes) above the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, before being brought safely back to earth on the morning of 23 July having achieving all the objectives of the trial. The Zephyr was built by Qinetiq, Boeing’s partner in the Solar Eagle project.
The Solar Eagle is being designed at the Phantom Works, Boeings main Research and Development arm.
You can watch the Zephyr – take off, flight and landing in the video below.