DARPA plans craft for five-year flight

The unmanned Vulture would be a "pseudo-satellite" that would "change the paradigm of how we think of aircraft," official says.

The Vulture is expected to draw on spacecraft design. NASA

DARPA is close to awarding a contract for the initial development phase of an unmanned aircraft capable of staying aloft for five years at a time, according to the aviation magazine Flight.

"Aviation has a perfect record--we've never left one up there. We will attempt to break that record," DARPA Vulture program manager Daniel Newman told Flight Global. "We want to completely change the paradigm of how we think of aircraft."

Call it a "persistent pseudo-satellite capability in an aircraft package"--DARPA does. Documents from the R&D agency envision the Vulture as being able to loiter uninterrupted over an area for more than five years at a time while performing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communication missions.

The program faces a number of technological challenges, not the least of which is what Vulture is expected to run on. DARPA has ruled out anything radioactive or blimplike, so that leaves fuel cells or solar.

Not only will the new aircraft be required to drift aloft month after month after month, but it will have to do so carrying a 1,000-pound payload while maintaining sufficient speed to withstand the winds at 60,000 to 90,000 feet. In other words, it will operate like a satellite, but not be constrained by the rules of orbital mechanics.

And unlike surveillance aircraft and other UAVs, the Vulture won't be dependent on foreign bases. Hey, we're saving money already.

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