April 22, 2008 The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing and Lockheed Martin as the contractors for the first phase of its Vulture program - a project which aims to design and develop a new breed of solar-powered unmanned aircraft that can remain airborne without interruption for an incredible five years.

The objective of DARPA's Vulture program is to develop a fixed-wing aircraft with pseudo-satellite capability that can sustain uninterrupted flight for over five years at 60,000-90,000 feet with a 1,000lb (450kg) payload, 5kW of onboard power and perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communication missions while remaining in the required mission airspace 99 percent of the time.

The initial 12-month analytical phase of the program will see the exploration of various vehicle configurations, concluding with a concept design review of sub-scale and full-scale demonstration vehicles. Key technologies to be investigated include innovative in-flight energy collection and reliable propulsion systems using photovoltaic cells and high specific energy fuel cells.

Boeing is teaming with United Kingdom-based QinetiQ Ltd. for the program, which will leverage technologies from the Zephyr solar-powered, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system currently funder development the for the U.K. Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Currently the only systems capable of providing multiple years of coverage over a fixed area are geosynchronous satellites orbiting 22,233 miles above Earth. "Such a 'pseudo-satellite' system, like Vulture, could provide compelling operational advantages in terms of persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications," said Pat O'Neil, program manager, Boeing High Altitude Long Endurance Systems.

Called “Odysseus”, Aurora’s concept is designed to fly in the stratosphere and uses solar power with energy stored on-board to facilitate flight at night. We're yet to see exactly what Odyssey will look like, but Aurora also foresees a broad range of potential applications once Odysseus has been proven including global climate change research, weather monitoring, and regional-scale telecommunications.

Aurora is already involved in several radical high-altitude flight programs including the MarsFlyer (pictured), an designed to take to the Martian atmosphere, the GoldenEye ducted fan UAV http://www.gizmag.com/go/6567/ and the Orion HALL (High Altitude, Long Loiter), a liquid hydrogen fueled high altitude platform designed to remain aloft for four days at altitudes up to 65,000 feet and perform military surveillance, meteorological observations and disaster response missions.

Aurora’s teammates on the Odysseus program include BAE Systems, C.S. Draper Laboratories, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. BAE will focus on payloads, sensors, and concept of operations and employment. Draper Labs will develop the extremely high reliability electronics and control systems necessary to achieve such very long flights. Sierra Nevada Corporation is a specialist in autonomous refueling systems.

Phase two of the Vulture program will see DARPA contractors will refine the demonstrator designs, continue technology development and conduct an uninterrupted three-month flight test of a sub-scale demonstrator. The third and final phase of the program will result in a full-scale demonstrator vehicle with the ability to operate continuously for 12 months.

View gallery - 3 images