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Boeing Gets $89M To Build Drone That Can Fly For 5 Years Straight 271

Posted by Soulskill
from the home-in-the-clouds dept.
coondoggie writes "One of the more unique unmanned aircraft concepts took a giant step toward reality this week when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency inked an agreement with Boeing to build the SolarEagle, a plane capable of remaining at heights above 60,000ft for over five years. Boeing says the first SolarEagle under the $89 million contract could fly as early as 2014."
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Boeing Gets $89M To Build Drone That Can Fly For 5 Years Straight

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  • SEE! (Score:3, Funny)

    by blhack (921171) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:17PM (#33614036)

    Isn't it frustrating that the military never encourages the development of new technology?

    I cannot think of a single civilian use for something like this, and definitely not a use for any of the derivative technologies. /sarcasm...because, well, nerdgasm

    • by Tragek (772040)

      Haha. Indeed. Almost certainly significantly cheaper than your average satellite, while giving a flexibility not available in satellites.

      Out of curiosity, is 60,000 feet high enough to avoid commercial airliner traffic? IE, would these things need to hook into Air Traffic Control?

      • At 60,000 feet, i don't think it makes any difference. The odds of a collision are so slim as to be negligible. When you see planes colide it's almost exclusively at low altitude in congested areas (e.g. airports or tourist sight-seeing).
        • by hedwards (940851)
          Indeed, IIRC, when planes are at cruising altitude they are segregated by direction so that they aren't likely to hit each other even without a lot of gizmos. It isn't until you get to lower altitudes near airports or in unregulated airspace that such accidents become much more frequent.
      • Re:SEE! (Score:5, Informative)

        by oldspewey (1303305) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:41PM (#33614272)
        Most commercial air traffic flies between 29,000ft - 39,000ft. I think there are one or two private jets that are certified to fly as high as 52,000ft. At 60,000ft it's just military traffic.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by icebike (68054)

          At 60,000ft it's just military traffic.

          And damned little of that.

          Currently in the US fleet only F15 F22 and F35 have announced service ceilings in excess of 60,000ft. (Some f15s can achieve 98,000ft (ballisticly).

          The experimental Russian P-1, Sukhoi and Su 27, and perhaps a few others could operate up there.

          But there is otherwise nothing up that high on a routine basis.

          50,000 feet is easily within reach of missiles. So other than areas where there is already full air dominance, I would not expect to see these in combat situations. As a comm

      • by TubeSteak (669689)

        Out of curiosity, is 60,000 feet high enough to avoid commercial airliner traffic? IE, would these things need to hook into Air Traffic Control?

        Commercial jetliners are certified to around 45,000 ft and some of the business class jets can go a bit over 50,000 ft.

        Either way, 60,000 feet is high enough that the only things you have to worry about are military aircraft and stray weather balloons, because 60,000 feet is where Class A airspace tops out.

        • by vought (160908)

          Several answers and none is quite right.

          Commercial and civilian jets all have certified ceilings that vary depending on the weight, balance, of the aircraft and length of the cruise, headwinds, weather, etc.

          Most comercial jetliners can cruise at 36-40,000 feet. The Concorde cruised higher, at around 60-62,000 feet.

          Additionally, commercial jets usually stick to well-known routes directed by ATC. Spacing for height and distance is variable.

      • I'd like Boeing to design a solar-powered car like this. Even if it only goes 25mph, being able to go to work without burning money... oops I mean gasoline would be great.

      • Re:SEE! (Score:5, Informative)

        by magarity (164372) on Friday September 17, 2010 @04:14PM (#33614654)

        is 60,000 feet high enough to avoid commercial airliner traffic?
         
        60k and above is what is called class E airspace and the rules are very simple for class E: It's up to you not to run into anyone else. Except for the occasional SR71 and U2, nothing regularly flies at this altitude (some fighter aircraft can go this high if they have to but they don't just cruise around for the heck of it): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airspace_class_(United_States)#Class_E [wikipedia.org]
         
        PS - most commercial airliners aren't rated for even 40K, nevermind 60. At 60, you can see the curvature of the earth out the window so it would be really cool to actually get to take a flight that could handle it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by vux984 (928602)

          At 60, you can see the curvature of the earth out the window so it would be really cool to actually get to take a flight that could handle it.

          I'm sure at 60 you can see the curvature much more dramatically, but you can see the curvature just fine at 40k too. The view from the cockpit (back when children and such were -gasp- invited to see the cockpit) it was particularly apparent. These days you'd probably need to be on a private jet to get more than a port-hole view though.

          Cite: http://www.opticsinfobase.o [opticsinfobase.org]

        • Your own wikipedia link defines Class E airspace completely differently than you have.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Concorde could reach 60k.

          An SR71 got diverted once because of this. The SR71 was flying somewhat faster, but Concorde's passengers were munching canapés and drinking Champagne, and her pilots were only a little less comfortable ;-)

          Sadly, both are now grounded.

          There's still a few English Electric Lightnings flying in South Africa, they can do 60k, and they're demilitarised.

    • by MarkGriz (520778)

      Isn't it frustrating that the military never encourages the development of new technology?

      Joke's on DARPA though..... Boeing is gonna spend that $89 mil on hookers & blow, since they know the world ends 2 years before they have to deliver it.

  • more unique (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Something can't be "more unique." It's unique, or it's not.
  • Summary Fail (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tirefire (724526) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:19PM (#33614054)

    "More unique"? You can't qualify "unique", it's like saying "more dead" or "more binary".

    Hey, where's everybody going?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

    • MIRACLE MAX:It just so happens that your friend is MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between MOSTLY dead and ALL dead. You see, mostly dead is still slightly alive. And there's only one thing you can do with mostly dead.
      INIGO: what's that?
      MIRACLE MAX: search through his pockets for loose change
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Darinbob (1142669)
      This concept is slightly pregnant with potential.
    • by Gotung (571984)
      You may not be able to be "more dead". But you can be mostly dead.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Hey, where's everybody going?

      Trying to get her more pregnant.

    • It's pretty clear you can. 101110001101010101 is definitely more binary than 10111. Count the digits.

      Don't try to outgeek me. There's no more geek. :)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by T Murphy (1054674)
      It makes sense- something unique is different somehow; if it is very different, "more unique" gets that across. Maybe your favorite grammar authority says otherwise, but as long as you are communicating clearly, it works for me.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I fully agree with parent.

        Each of you is unique... just like everyone else. But then there's Einstein...

        So "more unique" is a distinct concept expressed succinctly to cover the Einsteinian cases. It is not logical-- it is in fact an oxymoron-- but it is used in the English language, not PHP, Perl, or any of our other logical languages. Any processor capable of properly parsing spoken English would have less difficulty with 'more unique" than with "there, their, they're". It is good English. Good English

  • by pushing-robot (1037830) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:19PM (#33614058)

    Take $89 million...buy a Falcon 9 launch...pocket the difference.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So could this function as a more temporary satellite? Just fly it high and keep it over a certain area and it could perform some of the functions I imagine. Be easier to service/replace too. It would also cut down on all the crap in our orbitals, which is a plus.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by oldspewey (1303305)
      On the downside it's well within SAM range, though I imagine it has a pretty small thermal signature so that might present a more difficult target.
      • by sunking2 (521698)
        Anything going that high is guided by ground radar. And I'd imagine this thing probably has a huge radar signature.
      • by hedwards (940851)
        It's going to have a thermal signature that is just about zero. It's getting its energy from the sun, which means that it's probably a bit hotter during the day, and probably noticeably so during the night, but still probably a challenge to target.
    • by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:24PM (#33614126) Homepage Journal
      The big advantage is that it can loiter over a particular area for a long time. This is wonderful for something like relaying radio traffic. The problem with satellites is that they're either overhead for only a few minutes at a time, or they're so far away you need a 3 meter dish to communicate through it (not to mention the speed of light starts to become noticeable). It should also be suburb for surveillance work for the same reason: You can have one hang out over a target area for as long as you like, unlike a satellite where you are a slave to orbital mechanics.

      The downside is that a slow moving drone, even at very high altitude like that, is pretty easy to shoot down.
      • by localman57 (1340533) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:32PM (#33614202)
        Whether or not that's a downside has a great deal to do with your point of view...
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mlts (1038732) *

        I can see these put into use for keeping communications operational, should the Kessler Syndrome come into play making LEO impassible (courtesy nations like China showing off their target practice skills and the resulting space debris).

        Another use would be bandwidth for populated areas, so traffic wouldn't have to be bounced off a satellite just for region to region traffic.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by mysidia (191772)

        The downside is that a slow moving drone, even at very high altitude like that, is pretty easy to shoot down.

        Only if you are looking for it, and you have suitable instruments to detect its position, and something to shoot that can actually go that far up.

      • The downside is that a slow moving drone, even at very high altitude like that, is pretty easy to shoot down.

        Not really that easy. One advantage of being that high is that a surface-to-air missile will have expended much of its energy by the time it gets to you - it takes a smaller adjustment on your part to be outside the kill radius. If any of the modern approaches to stealth are incorporated it could be quite difficult to acquire and maintain track on a high altitude target.
  • batteries... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by martas (1439879) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:21PM (#33614094)
    i suppose one of the biggest challenges will be developing [lightweight] batteries that can function for 5 years while being dis/recharged every day... i.e. 1800 times. could be tough.
    • Re:batteries... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by vbraga (228124) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:44PM (#33614310) Journal

      Just remember satellites already goes through this kind of cycle everyday.

      • So they can keep working after the sun sets?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by CraftyJack (1031736)

          So they can keep working after the sun sets?

          Yep. Or the Earth gets in the way, however you prefer to think of it.

        • It may surprise you to realize that sometimes people need satellites to operate on the 'night' side of the terminator. The planet has kind of a big shadow.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          or, more accurately, when they are in the earth's shadow (not that common in high orbits, but regular for anything in LEO)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by martas (1439879)
        uhhh, well, sort of... but: depending on their orbit, "night" can be much more rare/less long than for a plane; due to lack of atmosphere, they get a lot more energy from the sun per sq inch of solar cell than a plane; and last but by far not least, they don't have to fly. mechanical motion is extremely rare for your average satellite. i'd think that changes the problem quite a bit.
      • Re:batteries... (Score:4, Informative)

        by snowraver1 (1052510) on Friday September 17, 2010 @04:24PM (#33614766)
        No they don't. The satellites that sit at a geo-stationary orbit are far enough out that they get sun almost 100% of the time. The earth is tilted, so much of the year they do get 100% sun. The closer satellites orbit with much shorter period, so they might only have to run on battery power for an hour or less.
    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      LiFePo, can I have the money now?

      Normally rated for 2,000+ cycles and 5 years sounds pretty reasonable.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by myrdos2 (989497)
      In TFA, they say the energy will be stored in fuel cells.
      • by martas (1439879)
        which is just a fancy way of saying "we haven't the foggiest idea how we're gonna store the energy"...
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by timeOday (582209)
          I don't get it either, when the article says "harvesting solar energy during the day that will be stored in fuel cells."

          Quoting wikipedia [wikipedia.org]: "Fuel cells are different from conventional electrochemical cell batteries in that they consume reactant from an external source, which must be replenished - a thermodynamically open system. By contrast, batteries store electrical energy chemically and hence represent a thermodynamically closed system."

          So AFAIK there is no way to "recharge" a fuel cell from solar cel

    • Would not a combination of battery recharged by solar cells and nuclear beta generator or similar be a better case ? I am a bit stumped for the lubricant tough.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      ABSL Li+ batteries should do the trick. We did a satellite design with them for a 14 year operational life. You need a ton of them, because they are small capacity. However, they are light enough that it shouldn't be a problem.
  • by BufferArea (794172) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:23PM (#33614118)
    Boeing Gets $89M To Build Drone That Can Fly For 5 Years Straight...for that much you think it could turn too!
  • 2014? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Stargoat (658863) <stargoat@gmail.com> on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:24PM (#33614122) Journal

    Four years development. Is this an alternate universe Boeing? Perhaps it is a Boeing from the past, when they could actually build airplanes that might approach a reasonable construction time.

    Further, the Solar Eagle is going to use propellers? I thought the big advantage of jet engines was less maintenance time. How is this going to fly with mechanical and exposed propellers for 5 years at a time?

    • Re:2014? (Score:5, Funny)

      by oldspewey (1303305) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:25PM (#33614134)
      I'm curious to hear more about your concept for a solar-powered jet engine.
      • by Stargoat (658863)

        I have no concept for solar powered jet engines. And I'm not selling it for 89 million either.

      • Re:2014? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by radtea (464814) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:52PM (#33614436)

        I'm curious to hear more about your concept for a solar-powered jet engine.

        I don't see why a solar or electric Brayton-cycle heat engine shouldn't be possible. I'm actually curious that no one has done this for solar farms instead of Stirling-cycle engines. While the theoretical efficiency of the Stirling-cycle engine is ideal, the practical problems are large due the the number of moving parts and issues with heat transfer.

        Brayton-cycle turbine engines inject the heat into the working fluid away from the moving parts, and one can imagine the air flowing through a heated mesh to perform the transfer. Not a winner for this applciation, where direct electric-drive propellers have compelling efficiency and possibly weight advantages, but for solar farms it might very well be competitive with Stirling engines.

      • by Bo'Bob'O (95398)

        It already mentions that the plane runs on fuel cells, so I would imagine there is some sort of electrolysis going on so that it store it's energy as oxygen and hydrogen already.

        Of course, it wouldn't be anything near the kind of efficiency.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by gman003 (1693318)
      You can't run a jet engine on solar power. And AFAIK, propellers are actually easier to maintain than jets, since they have much simpler parts. The main advantages to jets are ability to burn fuel at higher altitude and ability to attain higher speeds.
      • There's a study out there of using a hydrogen powered fuel cell to drive an electric motor attached to a high bypass jet engine - from memory 80% of the power of a high bypass engine come from the air flow vice the exhaust - recent advances have probably improved that.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by smellsofbikes (890263)
        Both piston aircraft and commercial jet aircraft are propeller-based. Piston aircraft and turboprop aircraft have a big exposed propeller, powered by pistons or a geared jet, while commercial turbofan engines, as used on 90% of airline transport aircraft, have a set of propellers enclosed in a housing, that are powered by a jet.

        Piston aircraft are *much* less reliable and have *much* lower time between overhauls than jets, because jets basically have a very small number of non-contact bearings, while pist

    • by Haffner (1349071)
      According to military contractor friends, basically, they inflate the bid, then they use that money on another project that is waaaay overbudget, and when the deadline comes around for the project they got funding for, they say "we need more funding" and get it. Repeat ad infinitum.
    • While I'm sure there will be no shortage of design challenges, there is a fair amount of precedent to work from in terms of the Pathfinder and Helios prototypes. It's also important to note that the design of a UAV can be an order of magnitude less rigorous than that of a piloted aircraft because you don't have to pressurize it or design a flight deck or account for human survivability etc.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by h4rr4r (612664)

      The maintenance issue is with internal combustion engines, these props will be spun by an electric motor.

      • by cynyr (703126)

        i thought most prop planes these days were turbo props, basically a turbine engine hooked to a prop but i could be wrong.

    • by hedwards (940851)
      They can still do it, they just screwed up in assuming that such a plane could be build with parts from around the world. Some companies just don't know how to deal with multinational production.
    • Four years development. Is this an alternate universe Boeing? Perhaps it is a Boeing from the past, when they could actually build airplanes that might approach a reasonable construction time.

      Yeah, it's safe to ignore both time and money estimates from government contractors until it has blown both its time and budget constraints a few times. The first bid is always impossible and full of half-truths and omissions to win the contract. The politics are stupid, but at least sometimes it results in good research.

  • by Animats (122034) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:25PM (#33614138) Homepage

    Wait until Google gets these. Google Maps could be updated in real time.

    • I'm expecting to see a Google "Follow Me Now" button next to "Live Traffic".
  • by Tekfactory (937086) on Friday September 17, 2010 @03:28PM (#33614158) Homepage

    Where the hell are you going to launch it from?

    I mean seriously maybe they'll launch it from the US during the airwar and it'll finally get to the combat theater by time we've achieved air superiority.

    I'd probably designed like a glider and to loiter for a long time by definition, would it just be easier to tow this thing like a glider to the theater of operations?

    I really like the concept and all the Weather satellite type work, and cellular nodes or broadband that could use this kind of platform. Unlike the Solar powered plane that flew recently this thing will actually have a payload and energy budget that includes the cameras and comms gear.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by amicusNYCL (1538833)

      Where the hell are you going to launch it from?

      Do you realize how many airstrips worldwide are operated by the US? I'm sure they would have no problem launching from Diego Garcia, that was a fine place from where to launch B-52s, KC-135s, and B-2s for their missions to Iraq.

    • by Haffner (1349071)
      Everyone talks about America's unquestioned air superiority. I don't doubt it would be an easy win in terms of military power, but what happens if we went up against a force that could hack our planes out of the sky? Seriously, how likely is that? I don't have a good handle on that.
      • Military hardware is not civilian hardware. Just to get a data link into a modern plane you would need to crack the encryption, crack the radio network to allow you in, and even then you'd still have to crack the actual systems on the plane itself. Now if you meant jamming, that is somewhat easier, but I can assure you that the military radios have ways to prevent that as well.

    • by kestasjk (933987) *
      I don't think the ease of takeoff a landing are a top priority for a plane which lands once every 5 years..
    • Even assuming an absolute worst case scenario, a single usable takeoff point in the entire world, conflict on the other side of the planet, and a cruise speed of 50 mph it would take a whopping 10 days to reach it's destination. And if they can really stay up for 5 years straight, you could have a fleet of them spread around the world ready to be deployed to nearby conflict zones.

    • Where the hell are you going to launch it from?

      I'm going to guess they'd launch it from one of the big strips in the Mojave desert and then set it over the US/Mexico or US/Canada border as very-long-term surveillance.

      Plus if it runs for 5 years, why not just make 40 of them, launch them all, and leave them all over the world, like the GPS satellite network? If you've got 5 year misson plans, why bother hurrying when you can just have one local?

  • Been reading about these ideas since I was in diapers. Okay, I was in diapers drinking beer, but still. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helios_Prototype [wikipedia.org]
  • Don't weather balloons already meet this criteria? They can reach 60000 ft and stay there for extended periods (not sure about 5 years). How much do you want to bet that Boeing is just going to build a $89 million balloon with a solar panel on it?
    • by hedwards (940851)
      Weather balloons can't be steered, and they aren't going to stay up there for extended periods of time without being refueled. With the added downside of them stirring up UFO paranoia. We're still dealing with the backlash from the spy balloons of the 40s and 50s.
  • Give 20 of the best $1 million grants, and I bet you'd have a workable design faster and cheaper

  • just push it up a little higher and let it fly even longer...

    And we'll call that flight path "orbit"

    And instead of drone, we'll call it a satellite.

    And we'll let it fly for 20 years!

    I'll take my 89 mil in large bills thank you.

  • Opportunity sent a message to NASA saying, "Oh yeah, baby, that's the stuff. I want to meet this new bird. Talk me up to her, guys, OK? Tell her I've been doing the same thing, but on another planet. Don't mention the wheels. Say, by the way, you said 90 days, umm, can I come home now?"

    oblig: http://xkcd.com/695/ [xkcd.com]

  • I'm not sure I see the goal/benefit for this metric.
    How about 5 planes each flying 1 year straight?
    Wouldn't that be easier, cheaper, more flexible and dynamic?
  • If development is complete 4 years from now, how can they have finished even a single test flight where it worked as advertised?

  • "Boeing believes the SolarEagle could fly as early as 2020 or maybe whenever they get around to finishing it after going tens of millions over budget"


    There, fixed that for you
  • I know very little about aviation design, other than the vacuum effect of wings. I'm curious why these solar powered electric planes are glider design rather than flying wing design? It would seem you could get more useful cargo space for batteries and significantly more lift surface.

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