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Boeing taps hydrogen for Phantom Eye UAV

The prototype unmanned aircraft, intended to join the ranks of surveillance drones, is expected to make its debut flight in early 2011.

Boeing Phantom Eye
The fledgling Phantom Eye makes its first appearance on the public stage, sans engines.

Boeing on Monday unveiled a potential new eye in the sky, this one powered by hydrogen fuel.

The Phantom Eye, an unmanned aerial vehicle from the company's Phantom Works division, is expected to make its first flight early next year. Boeing is pitching the demonstrator UAV as a "first of its kind" aircraft that "could open up a whole new market in collecting data and communications."

A decade into the 21st century, surveillance drones are nothing new considering the now long-running successes of aircraft such as the Predator and the Global Hawk. What sets the Phantom Eye apart is the hydrogen propulsion system. Although hydrogen has been bandied about for some time as an alternative energy source, it has yet to progress much beyond the novelty stage.

Boeing, understandably, accentuated the positive. "The hydrogen propulsion system will be the key to Phantom Eye's success," Drew Mallow, Phantom Eye program manager, said in a statement. "It is very efficient and offers great fuel economy, and its only byproduct is water, so it's also a 'green' aircraft."

Phantom Eye, with engine
This look at the Phantom Eye includes the full wingspan, plus an unmounted engine nacelle with propeller. Boeing

But the propeller-driven Phantom Eye is no muscle plane. It'll have a pair of 150-horsepower, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engines. Boeing says the UAV, with a 150-foot wingspan, will be able to cruise at about 150 knots and carry a payload of up to 450 pounds.

It is expected to fly at an altitude of 65,000 feet for up to four days. The initial flight in early 2011, however, is expected to last only about four to eight hours. Between now and then it will undergo a series of ground and taxi tests.

At the unveiling Monday, the engines were not mounted on the Phantom Eye. The prototype and its various component will be heading to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California for final assembly.

Among Boeing's partners on the project is Ford Motor, which is contributing to the engine efforts. The cooperation between Boeing and Ford on hydrogen engines goes back to at least 2007.

Meanwhile, Boeing's Phantom Works has a similarly named but distinct UAV project under way called the Phantom Ray. That flying-wing design, which uses a turbofan engine and is expected to fly at better than 600 miles per hour, is set to make its debut flight in December.