The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] has shown a new hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye unmanned airborne plane that can aloft at 65,000 feet for as many as four days.
The first flight is expected at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California in early 2011.
Boeing’s goal is to eventually develop a drone that can stay aloft for ten days. If it does so, it claims that four of the aircraft, based in the continental United States, could provide continuous battle field surveillance, eliminating the need for foreign airbase access and a global supply chain.
While a remarkable weapon in itself, Phantom Eye is also notable for its use of two four-cylinder Ranger truck engines from Ford Motor Company. The CEO of Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally came from Boeing of course, where he was executive vice president. Ford along with General Motors and Chrysler, once key U.S. defense contractors, long ago exited the business, leaving the field to other industrial companies, with many of them now partnered with offshore firms.
“The hydrogen propulsion system will be the key to Phantom Eye’s success. It is very efficient and offers great fuel economy, and its only byproduct is water, so it’s also a ‘green’ aircraft,” claimed Drew Mallow, Phantom Eye program manager for Boeing.
Phantom Eye is powered by two 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engines that provide 150 horsepower each. It has a 150-foot wingspan, will cruise at approximately 150 knots, and can carry an unspecified 450-pound payload. The engines are mounted, tractor style, at the very ends of the wing.
The engines developed by Ford about a decade ago can run on either liquid or gaseous hydrogen. While hydrogen shows great promise as a clean burning automotive fuel, refueling cars is a vexing problem. One or two U.S. military bases would be all that is needed to keep the drones flying.
The unit of The Boeing Company, Boeing Defense, Space & Security, which developed Phantom Eye, is one of the world’s largest defense, space and security businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world’s largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Defense, Space & Security is a $34 billion business with 68,000 employees worldwide.