Ultra-endurance unmanned spy plane closer to reality

DARPA’s Vulture program offers $155 million for next phase of drone that can stay aloft for 5 years.

The Vulture
Building the unmanned aircraft capable of carrying a 1,000-pound payload on five kilowatts of power and staying airborne for at least five years is getting closer to reality.   

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Vulture program is moving into Phase 2 and the agency today said it would be offering up a $155 million contract to get the super drone off the ground. Literally.  That's because in Phase 2, contractors, will be required to build a near full scale aircraft for flight demonstration and software development testing. 

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DARPA said the flight demo must validate flight controls, vehicle avionics, acquisition of structural load response characteristics, aeroelastic structural modes and characterization of aerodynamics and handling performance of the system. 

Aircraft reliability is a major success element and performance driver on the Vulture II program. The reliability success metrics, activities and plans for analyzing and validating reliability of critical systems must be a major component of the Vulture's technology maturation plan, DARPA stated. 

For phase 1 of Vulture,  Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were the initial contractors.  During that 12-month analytical effort, the three contractor teams conducted studies to determine the design concept that best satisfies the operational tasks and optimizes design capability. 

Vulture will use space satellite operations and design functions, in which long life and extreme reliability are routine, and bring this concept to the realm of aircraft operations in order to provide a level of mission reliability previously unknown in aircraft operations, DARPA stated.  Vulture will provide pseudo-satellite benefits such as increased platform availability and consistent and persistent coverage, and allow smaller fleet sizes. 

Powering Vulture could be interesting.  DARPA said anticipates heavier-than-air configurations that utilize solar energy harvesting and electric-driven propulsion. Other energy sources, excluding radioactive energy, and other propulsive generating techniques will be considered. 

DARPA said the Vulture program will focus on developing innovative technologies and approaches for in-flight energy collection or refueling and ultra-reliable systems or systems able to be repaired in-flight. Other new technologies that will be developed and that are key to the ability of the Vulture system to provide the desired mission reliability include multi-junction photovoltaic cells, high specific energy fuel cells, extremely efficient propulsion systems, in-flight precision autonomous materiel transfer and docking, extremely efficient vehicle structural design, mitigation of environmentally induced loads, and innovative vehicle control concepts. 

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