back to article DARPA looking at 'Z-Wing' stratocruiser

Last week, news broke that the Pentagon had selected three design teams to contend for its "Vulture" project, in which enormous yet frail unmanned flying wings will cruise for years on end in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Details of the plans are expected later this month, but some intriguing information has already …


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  1. dervheid

    Oh goody...

    more surveillance.

    Just what we need!

    Presumably this is intended to be deployed over 'friendly' territory, as I can't see it having the speed/agility/defenses to defeat a 'defensive attack'.

    I guess the CIA / MI5/6 etc have their pre-orders in already.

    Cloak of Invisibility, please!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    This is extremely cool.

    Also, if successful, it probably means that google will buy about 1000 of them to create a *live* google earth. Drool.

  3. Caoilte
    Dead Vulture

    think laterally

    It would work over occupied territory* if total air superiority had been achieved.

    ie Iraq for the next 100 years.

  4. Anonymous Coward


    >"Aurora's Vulture design is codenamed "Odysseus", no doubt alluding to the extremely lengthy voyages the craft is intended to make."

    Well, either that, or they're expecting it to get hopelessly lost for years at a time. And then when it finally does find its way home, it kills all its mum's new boyfriends.

    Or maybe they just mean that it is extremely clever but will be undone by its own hubris?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    one word...


    that word, I believe encompasses in completeness the single failure point of the possibility of having these things continually fly for years on end. You see, like moths, these things will need to be light seekers in order to maximize the amount of power they can accumulate. Also, like moths, they don't have the intellect of a gnat with severe mental retardation.


  6. Anonymous Coward

    Dock at high altitude?

    Good luck with that.

    I would guess the most likely outcome is lots near misses and/or collisions, rather than a working multisection platform that can add and remove sections as and when required.

    But I'm sure the animations look great, the marketing materials are polished, and they'll burn a load of cash before anyone realises it won't work.

    Then again that's probably the whole point!

  7. Steve


    The stratosphere starts at 6 miles up and goes on up to 31 miles.

    There aren't that many countries capable of shooting down anything that's towards the upper reaches of that range. The most advanced missile in use by Nato has a maximum range of 44 miles, although it's not clear (to me) if that includes straight up.

  8. Ian


    What exactly would this do that satellites/existing drones can't?

  9. dervheid

    @ Steve

    Maybe not many, but enough.

    Can't envisage the Chinese, Koreans et al being particularly tolerant of these.

    They managed to down a U2 (piloted by one Gary Powers), which was just a teensy bit quicker than this is likely to be, running on solar power.

    The words "duck" and "sitting" spring to mind.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Surely the most advanced missile in use by NATO is now the one that the US used to shoot down their spy satelite a few months ago. Then of course there's China's big anti-satelite gun, or whatever it was. I imagine these flimsy looking wings would be fairly vulnerable to such weapons, though it's unlikely that one of these would ever be deployed against a NATO member or China. At least not any time soon.

  11. Andy Barber

    @ Steve

    The PR of China shot down a satellite orbiting at 120km, So the USA did the same a month later. Your 60km ceiling has been doubled! The Z-Wing will have to have Anti-Interceptor defence, so would naturally be regarded as an offensive weapon by non NATO countries.

  12. Steven Hunter

    Watch out for those turbo lasers...

    "Odysseus will also use X-wing style tail units"

    and remember to set your deflector screens to double front.

  13. Mike Crawshaw

    Obligatory Nerd Insert...

    It uses Z-Wing AND X-Wing technology??? The Force is strong in this one!

    The brown robe, thanks...

  14. E

    Tech Demonstrator

    They scared the aliens off by demonstrating fission bombs and the willingness to use them, and then by developing fusion bombs. Ditto very fast attack aircraft, followed by stealthy attack aircraft. Ditto the application of IT to warfare. Rocketry has mostly not lived up to it's initial promise, so if the confrontation comes it will be fought mostly in the mid to upper atmosphere. The purpose of this aircraft is to fly around for ridiculously long periods of time and perform complicated multi-plane gymnastics while the aliens watch. This demonstrates to the aliens that our control of our airspace has advanced and that their plans have become obsolete in he face of this new capability.

    This kind of aircraft is simply another escalation in a 60 year old cold war fought with an enemy who - though in possession of very advanced tech - can only afford one attempt at invasion.

    I cannot see what is so difficult to understand about this.

  15. Andrew Bolton
    Black Helicopters

    Arctic at Winter Solstice?

    Good luck with that. Solar power with no sun. At all. None. Nada. Zero. That would be impressive if they could manage it.

    Black XWing, obv.

  16. Mike Moyle Silver badge

    A couple of thoughts...

    The assumptions here seem to be that these would be camera platforms and would only look straight down. At six miles up, curvature of the earth should give a horizon close to 120 miles away (? - too lazy to do the math...).

    While resolution near the horizon would doubtless be crap for image-based intel collection, at altitude, several of these cruising in a path over international waters and South Korean territory could, in theory, put almost all of North Korea under surveillance. And the atmospheric blurring that might hinder photographic work at distance wouldn't affect signals collection at all.

  17. Anonymous Coward


    Maybe they will be storing our entire DNA databases and planning our rebirth each generation. (Aeon Flux Balloons?)

  18. Chris G Silver badge

    A flight of fancy?

    Although I don't think we need more surveillance the actual technology is quite interesting if it ever works.

    I doubt if i'm the first to suggest this but DARPA should be renamed DAFTA Defence Advanced Fantastic Technologies Agency, and be paid accordingly.

  19. Bounty


    I wonder if stealth technology would work on something like this. It's rather large, in a place most birds don't fly.... would have a slow speed.

  20. Anonymous Coward


    Biggest advantage these would have over a geosynchronous sat is not being 30,000km away from their surveilance targets.

    A geosynchronous sat has one major problem, its looking through dozens of miles of atmosphere (straight down, more if its not looking at the equator) this doesn't give the best images possible, obviously.

    A polar sat gets around this problem (mostly) by orbiting over the poles and looking (mostly) straight down, problem here is it can't keep station above a target.

    A plane such as this can get both advantages.

    As to whether it can cope with the couple of hours of day light a day at higher latitudes close to the solstices, this remains to be seen. You have to remember though that most high-school concepts of the poles having 6 months of daylight followed by 6 months of dark aren't particularly accurate, especially when you start looking at altitude as well.

  21. Miami Mike

    Interesting toy here

    I have no doubt that this CAN be built - start with some very talented aerospace engineers and add a bottomless checkbook based on "National Defense Needs" = first flight 3rdQ 2009 or so.

    It may also not be all that easy to shoot down, either. First you have to detect it - heat seekers NG, not a jet, nothing gets hot enough to interest a heat seeking missile. Radar, add some stealth technology, poof, it's gone off the radar screen. Optical - mirrors, adaptive camouflage, decoy drones perhaps.

    The fact that it is designed to connect up on station means parts can be replaced as needed, fly up a new module, slot it in, fly the old one back down for service, platform is still available for use, could continue indefinitely.

    Even if you could "acquire" it (track it for targeting purposes), if it were over international waters and got shot down, the owners might have a few things to say about it, and remember the owners of this particular item have a LOT of firepower available to them and become very cranky when their toys get damaged by third parties.

    What I really want is a solar -powered airplane that I can fly across the whole ocean in! Doesn't even have to be really fast, as long as the propulsion power is free. Where can we put the seats? What's the in-flight movie?

  22. Dave Bell

    The obvious counter.

    If you can sort of cut off the light to the solar panels....

    How about a really big paintball gun?

    And you could probably disguise it as an oil pipeline.

  23. The Other Steve
    Paris Hilton

    RE : Arctic at Winter Solstice?

    Nah, not likely, they will all be deployed over territories closer to the equator where conditions are more favourable to pursuing the real strategic mission of a multi billion dollar stratospheric surveillance platform, which, as any fule kno, is to peek down ladies tops.

    Oh, I'm sure they wrote "Bolstering the nations strategic intelligence gathering capabilities" or some similar word salad on the project brief, but they had their fingers crossed. And they were sniggering.

    Also, am I the only one making "Star Wars" noises in my head ?

    <-- finally, an excuse to use the Paris icon!

  24. Ainteenbooty

    I like the modular concept

    If done right the modular nature of these craft could be quite advantageous. Imagine if they could link an indefinite number of these together, releasing units in need of service back to a landing zone, sending up new units to replace any which have failed or been shot down.

    If these things could be produced more affordably than the missiles required to shoot them down you could make countering them a futile pursuit by cranking them out like sausages.

    Such a numerical cost advantage could theoretically last until an affordable low-cost rail-gun platform is available, which isn't likely to happen any time soon.

    You could go over-board and flood a territory's skies with billions of them, blocking out the sun and imposing a prolonged artificial night until they capitulate to whatever demands you impose.

    (I might have gone a little far with that last part.)

  25. Anonymous Coward

    And here I am thinking of Icarus...

    I'm not sure these boffins have really got a handle on how hostile the environment is up there. I'm thinking solar etc radiation levels have got to be fierce.

  26. radian
    Black Helicopters

    @ David Wiernicki

    I would doubt that any government would allow the public access to a live Google Earth. It would be deemed a security risk.

    Bloody kill joys.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Halo

    Scale Model

    When you build a scale model the loadings and characteristics of the model are completely different to the full size unit so you have to make adjustments to wing loading, speed etc to make it work. The full size Z plane thingy is so like a model in it's basic characteristics. Now how do you model that?

  28. Trygve Henriksen
    Thumb Up

    Just imagine...

    The non-military uses of these craft...

    Cell-phone relay for use after a devastating disaster, real-time monitoring of forrest-fires or floods...

    Downward-looking radar to spot smugglers crossing the Gulf of Mexico...

    Better meteorology data...

    Instead of releasing balloons with throw-away sensors, use one of these craft with a set of sensors to record the data. Not only would they be able to get more accurately-placed readings(balloons drift, and two balloons released, one after another, may end up miles apart before they get to the correct altitude), but during the time between the readings, these craft can do other jobs.

    A smaller version of these craft may actually be cheaper in the long run, too...

    (Helium, latex balloons and sensor packages aren't cheap... )

  29. Matthew

    @Trygve Henriksen

    "latex... aren't cheap"

    Jeez, tell me about it!

  30. umacf24

    How are they going to empty the toilets?

    I can think of one way.

  31. This post has been deleted by its author

  32. Anonymous Coward

    My turn to man El Reg's anal-retentive desk:

    "every watt-minute of power"

    Watt-minutes are units of /energy/ *not* power

    Cool kit though. :)

  33. This post has been deleted by its author

  34. E

    No No No!

    I tell you its purpose is to keep the aliens off balance!

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