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Hydrogen-fueled Phantom Eye UAV takes to the sky

The Boeing-built drone aircraft makes its debut flight, one that ever so briefly foreshadows "persistent" surveillance missions lasting up to four days.

Boeing Phantom Eye
Boeing's Phantom Eye UAV takes off for its initial autonomous flight, June 1, 2012, at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

The bulbous Phantom Eye UAV flew for less than a half-hour in its debut autonomous flight -- but that was just a bite-size test in preparation for eventually staying aloft for days at a time.

Boeing announced this morning that its Phantom Eye made a 28-minute flight at the end of last week, reaching an altitude of 4,080 feet and a cruising speed of 62 knots. The unmanned aircraft, which looks rather like a propane tank outfitted with wings and a tail structure, is powered by liquid hydrogen. Ground tests took place earlier this year.

Eventually, the Boeing-funded aircraft is expected to handle four days of unrefueled autonomous flight, soaring as high as 65,000 feet.

"This flight demonstrated Phantom Eye's initial handling and maneuverability capabilities," Phantom Eye Program Manager Drew Mallow said in a statement. "The team is now analyzing data from the mission and preparing for our next flight. When we fly the demonstrator again, we will enter higher and more demanding envelopes of high-altitude flight."

Boeing isn't saying when that next flight will be. Along with the usual uncertainty -- or secrecy -- that goes with these sorts of test regimes, the demonstrator aircraft got roughed up at the end of Friday's flight, which took place at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. After touching down, Boeing said, the Phantom Eye "sustained some damage" when the landing gear dug into the ground and broke.

You can't see it in the photo, but, Boeing says, the Phantom Eye has a centerline skid plus a nose wheel that come down for landing. For takeoff, it rides a wheeled sled that resembles a boat trailer until it's ready to lift off. (See the video below.)

Where some drones, most notably the Predator and its sibling, the Reaper, have gained notoriety as sometime weapons platforms used in the hunt for terrorists in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Phantom Eye would be focused on "persistent" intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. In the parlance of the defense community, those would be high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) activities.

This demonstrator version of the Phantom Eye has a 150-foot wingspan and a pair of 150-horsepower engines, and it can carry a 450-pound payload. Two years ago, when Boeing unveiled the aircraft, it had planned for the first flight to take place in early 2011.