Boeing has tested a next-generation drone that the US military hopes will be one of its most high-flying and powerful vehicles one day for long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
The Phantom Eye unmanned airborne system took flight on June 1 at NASAís Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Boeing said it flew for 28 minutes to a top altitude of 4,080 feet. The drone reached a cruising altitude of 62 knots before its descent and slightly bumpy landing, which resulted in a broken landing gear.
Engineers flight tested the craft only after performing a series of taxi tests in April to ensure other aspects of the system -- including ground guidance, navigation and control, mission planning, pilot interface, and operational procedures -- were functioning properly. The drone has a 150-foot wingspan and can carry 450 pounds of ISR sensors, cameras, and other equipment to perform its missions.
Boeing's Phantom Eye drone takes off for its first autonomous flight June 1 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The drone achieved an altitude of 4,080 feet and a cruising altitude of 62 knots in its 28-minute flight. (Source: Boeing)
The first Phantom Eye flight test was just a preview of what Boeing and the US government hope the drone can do. According to Boeing, a liquid-hydrogen propulsion system will allow it to perform persistent monitoring for four days at a ceiling altitude of 65,000 feet. The propulsion system also is environmentally friendly, with water as its only byproduct, the company said.
However, the ambitious plans for the drone are still years away. Boeing had planned to fly the Phantom Eye earlier this year but pushed that date back due to technical issues. And the initial flight was meant to last eight hours. Nevertheless, Drew Mallow, program manager for the Phantom Eye, said in a press release that the flight "demonstrated Phantom Eye's initial handling and maneuverability capabilities," and that the next test flight will send it to an even higher altitude for a longer period.
The Phantom Eye is also part of a rapid prototyping program that allows Boeing to use technologies developed for the drone in future ISR, strike, and bomber programs, Mallow said.
Boeing has manufactured a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including the A160T Hummingbird, H-6U Unmanned Little Bird, S-100 Camcopter, Integrator, and ScanEagle. UAVs have been widely used in engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and (as we've reported before) are a continuing focus of design and development efforts by the military.
The Navy is exploring the design and development of other unmanned systems, including surface vessels and undersea crafts.
Interesting clip. I just recently heard a program on NPR discussing this administration's preference for drone war strikes because of the so-called "limited collatoral damage." The thrust of the interview, though, was commentary from a journalist in the field where drones frequently fly and the terror they command among civilian population. His point was that even though drones are positioned as less invasive and more targeted than traditional war fare, they are still killing machines and should be used sparingly.
Beth, in the type of combat environment that Afghanistan is, I think drones dropping bombs is a mistake. The human deciding to release the bomb bases the decision on what can be seen from a video screen, and what can be relayed via radio from ground observers.
Too many civilian casualties have occurred from this sort of air strike. Having a human on board, using eyeballs directly, may prevent civilian casualties and improve the political environment.
Drone strikes in a more direct combat environment are terrific; they keep the operators safe. In attacks close to civilians, they are not the right tool.
@TJ: That was the point the journalist I heard was trying to make. That drones are not the simple answer for avoiding human casualty. That said, it seems that a lot of R&D dollars will go into advancing drones and in particular, their intelligence systems. Perhaps via that work and with improved global positioning and visualization technology, we can strive for better accuracy and less casualties on the ground.
We know the type of enemy we face now has no regard for human life, yet they say everything we hit is a childeren's hospital or an old age home. There is no winning the political war against these people.
It is up to them to protect their own civilians. They sure don't look out for ours. In fact they use their own as human shields, playing our sympathies.
Let's be clear about hydrogen as a clean fuel. While the hydrogen itself is "green" the gas does not come out of a well in Texas, nor even from some country we might conquer. The only commercial sources of hydrogen are cracking a hydrocarbon, or electrolyzing water. These processes consume about 2 to 3 times as much fossil fuel energy as you ultimately get from the hydrogen. this doesn't even include the refrigeration process to liquify the hydrogen. The sole advantage of hydrogen in this aircraft is that you get more endurance per unit weight than you would with gasoline engines.
If the goal is to maintain a high altitued observation platform, might we do better by using the hydrogen as lifting gas in a dirigible?
I suspect that the use of hydrogen (liquid) is a result of a huge H2 plant that must have been mothballed due to the end of the shuttle program. I believe that Air Products was making the H2 for the program which needed TONS of it for every launch.
J-allen is right. The most economical way that commercial producers make hydrogen (like Air Products) is to reform it ("Reform" is the term used to describe the process) from natural gas.
The commercial producers would electrolyze it if it were cheaper to obtain it that way.
The single biggest problem with hydrogen is how to store it. Gaseous form is not nearly dense enough and liquid storage requires cryogenics. Metal hydrides will actually store hydrogen at higher density than liquid in the same size container (still seems counter intuitive to me) but the metal hydride is very heavy and adds hundreds of pounds even in an automotive application.