Monrovia drone maker AeroVironment Inc. announced Tuesday that its massive robotic Global Observer aircraft successfully completed its first flight powered by a hydrogen-fueled propulsion system last week at Edwards Air Force Base.
The milestone marked the beginning of high-altitude, long-endurance flight testing of the plane for the U.S. military. The company is developing the drone to stay aloft for a week at a time at a 65,000 feet — vastly expanding the reach of military spy planes.
With a wingspan stretching 175 feet, the Global Observer is built to survey 280,000 square miles — an area larger than Afghanistan — at a single glance.
In the test flight, which took place Thursday, the estimated $30-million drone circled above Edwards at about 3,000 feet above ground level in a four-hour test.
"Global Observer has moved quickly from development and testing toward demonstrating mission-ready, affordable persistence," AeroVironment Chairman and Chief Executive Timothy E. Conver said in a statement.
By year-end, he said recently, the company hopes to see the plane flying at 65,000 feet, which is out of range of most antiaircraft missiles.
The Global Observer has an internal-combustion engine that burns cryogenically stored liquid hydrogen. The engine powers a generator that produces electricity, which turns the plane's four propellers affixed to the plane's fixed wing.
Because of the Global Observer's hydrogen fuel source, the plane's exhaust is water vapor. Conver calls the plane environmentally friendly "like a Prius. The hybrid-electric approach to aircraft."
If successful, a seven-day flight of the Global Observer would greatly extend the endurance of spy planes. The longest a spy plane can stay in the air now is about 30 hours.
"It gives an entirely new meaning for the duration of flight," said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare. "We'll be calculating the plane's flight by days, instead of hours and minutes."
The Global Observer was built under a $120-million Pentagon demonstration program by 150 engineers and technicians at an AeroVironment production facility in Simi Valley. The company also used components from its plant in Monrovia, where it makes charging systems for electric cars.
AeroVironment, which has about 730 employees, is the largest provider to the U.S. military of small, hand-launched drones that soldiers use to see over hills or down a road.