DARPA launches pseudo satellite plane programme

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has given the go ahead for work to develop a fixed-wing aircraft capable of staying in flight at high altitude for five years at a time.

DARPA has named Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing and Lockheed Martin as contractors for the first phase of the Vulture programme, which will eventually put a system capable of carrying a 1,000-pound payload drawing 5 kW of power into orbit.

The project will focus on developing new techniques for in-flight energy collection or refuelling, and systems that are either ultra-reliable or can be repaired in-flight. These are likely to include multi-junction photovoltaic cells, high specific energy fuel cells, extremely efficient propulsion systems, and innovative vehicle control concepts.

The aim is to bring the qualities of long life and extreme reliability that are well established in the satellite industry to the realm of aircraft operations, providing benefits such as increased platform availability and consistent and persistent coverage, and allowing smaller fleet sizes.

"Such a 'pseudo-satellite' system, could provide compelling operational advantages in terms of persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications," said Pat O'Neil, Boeing̵7;s programme manager for high-altitude, long-endurance systems.

Boeing is collaborating on the project with UK technology firm Qinetiq, currently flying and testing a solar-powered, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system for the UK Ministry of Defense and the US Department of Defense under the Zephyr Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration. Technologies developed for Zephyr will be incorporated in Vulture.

Vulture̵7;s year-long first phase will result in conceptual designs for sub and full-scale demonstrators and conclude with a system requirements review. In phase two, contractors will refine the demonstrator designs, continue technology development and risk reduction efforts and conduct an uninterrupted three-month flight test of a sub-scale demonstrator.

The third and final phase of the program will consist of a flight test of the full-scale demonstrator vehicle, during which the Vulture system will have to demonstrate the ability to operate continuously for 12 months.

Image: Vulture will stay in flight for five years [QinetiQ]

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