What Does Boeing's SolarEagle Mean for the Future of Green Aviation?

Boeing is one of the most recognizable names in the aviation industry, so when they come up with a new design it generates a great deal of buzz. While no one would necessarily be surprised about a redesigned 747 or 777 incarnation, it is always refreshing when they announce one of their green projects. The latest of their zero emissions projects was announced the other day and promises not only to fly high, but to stay up there among the clouds.

That project is Boeing’s new SolarEagle. The SolarEagle is the result of the Phantom Works research into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that are powered by renewable energy sources. The announcement of the SolarEagle, in fact, comes after the unveiling of the Boeing Phantom Eye: the UAV reconnaissance vehicle that is powered by biofuels. Unlike the Phantom Eye, however, the SolarEagle is designed to run off of electricity gathered by the sun’s rays. The really unique ability that the SolarEagle is bringing to the table is that it will supposedly be capable of flying non-stop in the stratosphere for a period of five years before being required to land. The idea is that the craft can gather energy during the day from the sun and store it to run throughout the night in a premise that is similar to the manned solar craft the Solar Impulse team managed to successfully fly for twenty four hours in Switzerland.

While the SolarEagle’s lofty goal of staying in the skies for nearly five years seems impossible, Boeing is confidant that the technology is already here. The craft was specifically designed by Boeing to meet the specifications of DARPA’s Vulture project, a program that has contracted several aviation companies to develop an aircraft that could operate on long term “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communication missions.” As a part of the project, Boeing has received an $89 million contract to prepare the SolarEagle for a month long test flight in 2014. Once completed, the craft will have a wingspan of nearly 400 feet and will be designed to withstand the high winds of the upper stratosphere while utilizing a minimum amount of energy.

In a way, the SolarEagle will be acting as a sort of temporary satellite that has its roots in the intelligence gathering satellites that encircle earth and the missions of the Cold War’s SR-71 Blackbird. As the heir to those legacies, the SolarEagle is obviously intended primarily for use in military operations. However, considering the amount of civilian technology that is born out of military innovation, I would not be surprised if the technology that will eventually make the SolarEagle possible finds its way onto the civilian market. Perhaps the next step, as fantastical as it may seem, is the creation of massive solar gliders that carry people around the globe on a sort of sky cruise.

With announcements coming almost weekly about the advancements in green transportation on the ground, it is nice to see news coming out for those of us who still look skyward. Now all that remains is to wait for the test flight of the SolarEagle in 2014 to see if they can really pull of a design meant to last on its own in the sky for five years.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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