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Massive experimental drone takes to skies above Edwards AFB (Video)

June 04, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • The Phantom Eye, Boeing's unmanned aerial vehicle, made its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base.
The Phantom Eye, Boeing's unmanned aerial vehicle, made its first… (Bob Ferguson / Boeing Co. )

A massive experimental drone designed by Boeing Co. engineers to fly for up to four days at a time completed its first test flight above the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

The drone, called Phantom Eye, and its hydrogen-fueled propulsion system have the potential to vastly expand the reach of military spy craft. The longest that reconnaissance planes can stay in the air now is about 30 hours.

In the test flight, which took place Friday, the Phantom Eye circled above Edwards at about 4,080 feet above Edwards for 28 minutes. After touching down, the vehicle had problems when the landing gear dug into the lake bed and broke.

The Chicago-based company said engineers are assessing the damage but added that they plan on putting the Phantom Eye through more demanding test flights in the future.

With a 150-foot wingspan and an egg-shaped fuselage, the drone was built at Boeing's Phantom Works complex in St. Louis with engineering support from its facilities in Huntington Beach. The drone is designed to spy over vast areas at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet.

"This day ushers in a new era of persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance where an unmanned aircraft will remain on station for days at a time providing critical information and services," said Phantom Works President Darryl Davis in a statement. "This flight puts Boeing on a path to accomplish another aerospace first — the capability of four days of un-refueled, autonomous flight."

Unlike existing combat drones that are controlled remotely by a human pilot, the Phantom Eye could carry out a mission controlled almost entirely by a computer. A human pilot sitting miles away can design a flight path and sends it on its way, and a computer program guides it to the target and back.

The flight was powered by liquid hydrogen. Boeing says the fuel is a powerful alternative for vehicles that require endurance, and the combustion leaves only water in the atmosphere.

It took Boeing about four years to get the Phantom Eye to the runway, without the promise of a payout. Boeing does not have a contract on the drone; it is developing the craft at its own expense.

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Follow Hennigan on Twitter @wjhenn

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