Boeing SolarEagle solar-powered UAV to fly in 2014


September 16, 2010

The Boeing SolarEagle will make its first demonstration flight in 2014 as part of DARPA's Vulture II demonstration program (Image: Boeing)

The Boeing SolarEagle will make its first demonstration flight in 2014 as part of DARPA's Vulture II demonstration program (Image: Boeing)

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Vulture program, which aims to develop and demonstrate technology to enable a single high-altitude unmanned airplane (UAV) to operate continuously for a period of five years, has entered phase II. Under the terms of an US$89 million contract, Boeing will develop a full-scale demonstrator called the SolarEagle that will make its first demonstration flight in 2014. 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.

"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."

Under the Vulture II agreement, Boeing’s Phantom Works division will develop a full-scale flight demonstrator, including maturation of the critical power system and structures technologies. Key suppliers for the program include Versa Power Systems and QinetiQ, who will draw on experience taken from building its own solar-powered aircraft, the Zephyr.

During testing, the SolarEagle demonstrator will remain in the upper atmosphere for 30 days, harvesting solar energy during the day that will be stored in fuel cells and used to provide power through the night.

The desire to develop an aircraft that can stay aloft for extended periods to act as a pseudo-satellite for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communication applications has seen a number of solar-powered aircraft hitting the runways in recent years. The Solar Impulse recently flew through the night passing another milestone on its way to an attempt to fly around the world non-stop in 2012. Meanwhile, QinetiQ is currently awaiting ratification for three world records, including the absolute flight duration record for a UAV of 336 hrs 22 minutes, for its Zephyr.

But solar power isn’t the only energy source being looked at to keep aircraft in the skies for extended periods. Boeing’s Phantom Works division is also working on a hydrogen-powered demonstrator called the Phantom Eye, a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) aircraft designed to stay aloft for up to four days.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick
1 Comment

This plane is all very wonderful, but what is wrong with using a gas balloon? This would stay up indefinitely. You would have solar powered propellers for control. You might not even need batteries, as the craft would not necessarily need to move about over-night. The gas fill could be hydrogen which is lighter and cheaper than Helium. This idea is low tech, but it would work.

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