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Boeing wins Pentagon contract to build a solar-powered drone that can stay aloft for five years

September 20, 2010 |  6:24 pm

MSF10-0169-01_SolarEagle

With four scrawny fuselages and wings stretching more than the length of a football field, Boeing Co.’s solar-powered drone looks a bit like a flying antenna.

But the government is hoping that the aircraft, dubbed the SolarEagle, will one day be capable of flying for five straight years at 60,000 feet.

Last week, Boeing announced it had won an $89-million contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a prototype of the SolarEagle that can demonstrate it can stay aloft for 30 days by 2014. Eventually, Chicago-based Boeing sees the SolarEagle hovering at stratospheric altitudes for at least five years.

"That's a daunting task, but Boeing has a highly reliable solar-electric design that will meet the challenge,” Pat O'Neil, the plane’s program manager, said in a statement.

The SolarEagle will draw on solar energy through panels affixed to the wings. The power will be stored in fuel cells and used through the night. The plane will also feature electric motors and propellers. Much of the design work is being done by Boeing engineers at its Phantom Works facility in Huntington Beach.

Boeing expects the plane to be ultimately used as a spy and communication aircraft.

-- W.J. Hennigan

Image: Artist's rendering of the SolarEagle. Credit: Boeing Co.

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