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DARPA inks 5-year-mission solar strato-wingship deal

Vulture 'pseudo satellite' to be built for $89m

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US aerospace mammoth Boeing has beaten its competitors and landed an $89m contract to build the "Vulture", a huge unmanned solar-powered plane intended to cruise the stratosphere for five years without landing.

One need hardly add that the agency handing out government cash for the initial demonstrator aircraft is DARPA, the US military research agency which has birthed so many freakish mutant techno-children. Most of these prove unable to survive and wander off to die in the woods; others grow up in strange and unforeseen ways (for instance the internet, intended originally as a military communications system but which is today the mightiest archive of pornography the world has ever known).

In the case of Vulture, the idea is to achieve a platform with the good qualities of both satellites and aircraft, hopefully with none of the downsides of either. According to a DARPA statement issued yesterday:

Vulture technology enables a re-taskable, persistent pseudo-satellite capability in an aircraft package. The technology combines the key benefits of an aircraft (flexibility & responsiveness, sensor resolution, reduced transmit/receive power, affordable deployment) with the benefits of a satellite (on-station persistence, no logistics tail, zero emissions, energy independence, minimal fleet size, absence of in-country footprint). The system has potential in numerous roles: operation as a single platform, as a formation of multiple aircraft or as a constellation providing infrastructure augmentation or recovery.

“The Vulture technology shatters some fundamental aviation and space paradigms”, enthuses Daniel Newman, DARPA program manager.

According to Boeing the initial demonstrator craft will be based on the SolarEagle prototype developed by the firm's advanced-concepts lab, the Phantom Works. However Boeing adds says that controversial UK warboffinry selloff bonanza company Qinetiq will be a "key supplier", suggesting that the Vulture will also include technology from Qinetiq's "Zephyr" sun-plane.

The Vulture demonstrator will have a wingspan of 400 feet and its propellors will be spun by electric motors. Surplus solar energy will be stored during the day using fuel cells in order to keep the aircraft flying - and power the payload systems - through the night. The initial test flight is intended to last 30 days, as a start towards the programme goal of five-year endurance.

Other technologies are being investigated for long-endurance flight at high altitudes, both by DARPA and other agencies. These include hydrogen-fuelled aeroplanes as opposed to solar powered ones, and also airships both solar and gaseous-fuelled. ®

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