"What's the advantage...really...of having a solar-powered airplane?"
That's the kind of question I expect from people who are not immediately enamored with anything powered directly from that great flaming ball in the sky. And I suppose it's a question that should be answered, while I sit here drooling over the fact that it exists at all.
But the DoD has now answered that question. After a lot of work funding unmanned solar powered aircraft, they've announced a plan (Project Vulture!) to create one that will only need to land once every five years. It's a little bit like a spy satellite, except it can operate under its own power, and at much lower altitudes (though still in the stratosphere).
The Project Vulture contract has been awarded to three companies: Boeing, Lockheed, and Aurora Flight Sciences. Of these, only Aurora has unveiled an actual concept. The Odysseus craft (pictured) remains very mysterious. But it seems as if it can actually fold the craft along two hinges. This might allow it to fly straight, while maximizing exposure to the setting or rising sun.
It will, of course, be entirely carbon-neutral, storing power in batteries during the day, and using them at night. Theoretically, the number of charge-discharge cycles the batteries are capable of should be the limiting factor in the length of the planes flight.
Each of the three segments are actually an independent unit that can fly, take off and land on their own. Once in the air, they link to provide the maximum amount of lift with the minimum amount of energy with a wingspan longer than that of a Boeing 767. If one of the segments is damaged, the other two can operate completely independently.
And, for those of us who are less interested in using green technology for warfare (albeit cold warfare,) Aurora says that the solar plane could also be useful for mobile communications and meteorology as well.
written by curt, April 30, 2008
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