DARPA has awarded contracts to several firms to build prototypes for the Vulture, an unmanned plane that would stay aloft for five years on solar power:
What the Pentagon wants is essentially a maneuverable satellite replacement: a fixed-wing, heavier-than-air craft that’s high enough to “see” large swaths of the Earth at once, but one that can also reposition itself to circle over new areas of interest, something satellites in fixed orbits can’t do.
It has to be able carry a 1,000-pound payload, battle stratospheric winds, generate a continuous 5 kilowatts of electricity — and it can’t use nuclear power to do so.
“We want to completely change the paradigm of how we think of aircraft,” Vulture project manager Daniel Newman tells Flight. “We would no longer define an aircraft by the launch, recover, maintain, launch cycle.”
Cool. It also would fly at 90 thousand feet, higher than most planes but quite a bit lower than satellites, which would give it better resolution.