DARPA'S mission: looooooong flight

June 3, 2008 5:53:25 AM PDT
It's the job of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to think up useful new ideas, and one of their newest is called Vulture.

Think of it as a very inexpensive spy satellite -- or, as what it looks like: a robotic plane that can stay airborne for five years or more.

Why would anyone want one? Because, in part, a satellite can cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and may not really be necessary -- if you can build a practical alternative. If the military wants to keep an eye on a sensitive place, or if a cable company wants to send signals to subscribers, why have a satellite hundreds of miles up when you can do the same job from 12 or 20 miles up?

DARPA's description: "The objective of the Vulture program is to develop an aircraft capable of remaining on-station uninterrupted for over five years to perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and communication missions over an area of interest. The technology challenges include development of energy management and reliability technologies capable of allowing the aircraft to operate continuously for five years. Vulture, in effect, will be a retaskable, persistent pseudo-satellite capability, in an aircraft package."

One possible version, called Odysseus, comes from Aurora Flight Sciences, Inc., a Virginia-based company that specializes in robotic aircraft, and has a contract with DARPA to see if a plane can be made to fly for years on end. Will it be solar powered? Will it get electricity sent up from the ground periodically by microwave? How do you make a plane that doesn't wear out at high altitude, where the temperatures can be unfriendly and the atmosphere doesn't protect you the way it does lower down?

Aurora has a release HERE, and there's a fanciful piece in the Toronto Star, which you can find HERE.

Similar ideas have, er, come crashing to earth in the past. If this one works, DARPA hopes it will fly so high that people on the ground will barely be able to see it, and never hear it.