Aurora, Draper, BAE Win Contract to Build Long-Duration Surveillance Aircraft

Talk about a long flight. While the world’s longest passenger jet trip (the 18-hour, 40-minute journey from Newark to Singapore) may be a killer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has hired a group of organizations with Massachusetts operations, including Aurora Flight Sciences, Draper Laboratories, and BAE Systems, to build a plane that can stay in the air for five years.

Manassas, VA-based Aurora (which has a research lab in Cambridge, MA—I profiled it here in October) announced today that it has been selected under DARPA’s “Vulture” program to help build an unmanned aircraft that can keep a 1,000-pound payload of camera and radio equipment aloft in the stratosphere for five years without landing. (Apparently the military has run out of inspiring birds to name aircraft after, and has now turned to the unsavory ones.)

The plane would need to be powered by solar energy, fuel cells, and/or extremely efficient internal combustion engines, since DARPA has ruled out nuclear or radiation-based power systems. The craft will mainly function as a surveillance tool—with a lifetime approaching that of some orbital satellites. Indeed, DARPA calls Vulture a “retaskable, persistent pseudo-satellite…in an aircraft package.”

Aurora’s design concept for the Vulture, called Odysseus, works on solar energy during the day and stored solar energy at night. Aurora teamed on its proposal with Cambridge, MA-based Draper Labs, which will develop high-reliability electronics and control systems for Odysseus, and BAE Systems, which has offices in Acton, MA and will work on payloads and sensors. A fourth partner, Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, NV, specializes in autonomous refueling systems.

For the first phase of the Vulture project, expected to last 12 months, the Odysseus team members will need to come up with a basic design and build scale-model demonstration craft. Phase 2, expected to run from 2009 to 2012, will culminate in the testing of a demonstrator that can stay aloft for three months. DARPA wants the finished Vulture craft—which will only be built if the Phase 2 tests are successful—to be capable of station-keeping (circling over a set location such as a battlefield) 99 percent of the time at an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet, where 100- to 200-mile-per-hour winds are common.

NASA’s Helios solar-powered, high-altitude craftThe inspiration for Vulture comes partly from experimental unmanned planes designed and tested by NASA, including Helios, a single-wing, solar-powered craft that set an altitude record in 2001 by flying above 96,000 feet for 40 minutes. (In a later test Helios broke up and crashed into the ocean.)

I wasn’t able to get through to anyone at Aurora for comment about the DARPA award, but the company said in its press announcement that it foresees “a broad range of potential applications” for Odysseus-type craft, other than military surveillance. “Prime among these are global climate change research, weather monitoring, and regional-scale telecommunications,” the company said.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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