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Ford flying high with futuristic Boeing UAV

An unmanned aircraft with a hydrogen engine--a variation on the gas-powered motors in Ford's Fusion and Escape hybrids--does well in preliminary tests, the companies say.

Boeing's HALE (high altitude long endurance) unmanned aircraft runs on hydrogen fuel.

Boeing is reporting progress in simulation tests of its HALE (high altitude long endurance) aircraft, an unmanned plane that runs on hydrogen.

While it has not yet gone aloft, the propeller-driven HALE aircraft was able to run for a total of three days in a chamber that simulated flight at 65,000 feet. The eventual goal is to get it to fly for more than a week at a time with a one-ton payload.

The turbocharged hydrogen combustion engine, which was developed by Ford Motor, managed to maintained proper torque control while getting better than expected fuel usage, according to Boeing. Boeing was particularly impressed with the aircraft's endurance, according to a company statement this week.

The gasoline version of the engine is used in the Ford Fusion and Ford Escape hybrid vehicles, according to the automaker.

The HALE aircraft is a drone that could be used as a tool for border patrol, communication, telecommunications, general surveillance, battlefield intelligence gathering, reconnaissance missions, and port security.

UAVs are a hot field for development and actual use these days as an economical alternative to manned aircraft. The Pentagon is especially drawn to them: Just last month, the Air Force began flying the Reaper UAV--a bigger, more heavily armed version of the Predator--on missions in Afghanistan. The aircraft have civilian uses, too: NASA has its own (unarmed) version of the Predator, called Ikhana, that is being used to monitor fires in California.

Successful testing of the Boeing HALE aircraft could help convince people that hydrogen power is a viable option for aircraft, Boeing said.