back to article DARPA inks 5-year-mission solar strato-wingship deal

US aerospace mammoth Boeing has beaten its competitors and landed an $89m contract to build the "Vulture", a huge unmanned solar-powered plane intended to cruise the stratosphere for five years without landing. One need hardly add that the agency handing out government cash for the initial demonstrator aircraft is DARPA, …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Five years

    What (light-weigth) batteries can take a five year constant charge/dis-charge cycle?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      RTFA FFS

      "Surplus solar energy will be stored during the day using fuel cells"

      The "light-weigth" batteries will be fuel cells then.

      Presumably hydrogen.

      Power derived through combining hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen at night (making H2O), and stored by electrolysing H2O and disposing of the oxygen (or store/burn the oxygen too).


      1. rlnac

        Distributed Solar

        I would like to produce solar electricity at my residence. I am permitted to supply energy to the “grid” with a “grid-tied” system. With the “net metering” plan, I can supply power and obtain credit for my power consumption up to the amount I use. However, if I supply a surplus of power in excess of what I use, I am not permitted to be compensated under current regulations. My desire is simply to sell my surplus power, on the grid, to my neighbors, at fair market value. There is currently no other practical way to do this other than to supply the power to the grid.

        In a “distributed power” scheme, “sustainable” or “renewable” energy (solar, wind, etc.) is produced by numerous “small scale” power generators, such as residential solar, tied into the grid. For a distributed power scheme to work, those installations producing a surplus of power must provide it to those that do not. For example, if my solar installation produces more energy than I consume, the surplus would be fed into the grid to supply my neighbor whose house is shaded and doesn’t have solar power, or perhaps an historic building where solar panels would not be installed, or perhaps a manufacturing facility that consumes more power than it can produce. It is readily apparent that, to give this scheme a chance to work, those who supply surplus power must be compensated by those who consume it. In essence, we must be permitted to sell sustainable electric power on the grid. It is my understanding that, at present, we are not.

        I would like to enumerate some of the advantages of a distributed solar energy production system.

        First is energy security. Silicon solar cells require no exotic materials. They are constructed primarily of silicon which is both common and abundant. They can be produced virtually anywhere in the world, including under-developed countries, from commonly available materials. This ensures an unrestricted and virtually limitless supply of materials. The batteries and inverters required for distributed production can also be constructed of common materials. The energy produced from solar cells can be used to produce more solar cells in an upward spiral of increasing production.

        Second is strategic security. Our current “centralized” power generation is “targetable”. Generating stations are primary nuclear targets. You might say such facilities “attract warheads”. A distributed solar generating system where energy is produced on roofs and other locations spread thinly across the country is not easily destroyed by nuclear weapons. In fact, it is not practical. This reduces the value of nuclear warheads as weapons. Silicon production, too, can be “spread out” or “decentralized” in numerous small facilities relatively invulnerable to nuclear attack. By extending this “target reduction” concept to other vital industries, we can reduce our “target load” or “nuclear exposure” significantly. We can increase our “survivability” while simultaneously reducing the strategic value of nuclear weapons and reducing the likelihood of their use. Our cities may, over time, replace high-density uses with lower-density uses, further reducing the risk of attack. Ultimately, we may achieve a state with few nuclear targets, economic security, and negligible risk of nuclear war. This is why I would like distributed energy producers to be able to sell electricity on the grid at market prices. We would like the opportunity to compete with other emerging technologies in a free and open electricity market. So, you see, all I want is to be allowed to sell solar electric power to my neighbors.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge


    You don't even need orbital capability to shoot the bugger down.

    It's slow and hangs around the same place for weeks... yep, should be easy to find.

    1. James Hughes 1

      But you need a big guided rocket

      To get to the presumably high altitude this will fly at.

      This small hand launched stuff won't do the trick.

  3. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    @Lester Haines

    For a moment I thought you've managed to sell PARIS design to DARPA for USD89mio...

  4. Jez Burns
    Thumb Up

    Primary objective:

    To unsettle the enemy by beaming Joe Satriani style twin-axe power-rock over a 200 mile radius..

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Too much energy

      That would use too much power. More likely a solar-bot will play carbon-fibre kazoos in the prop-wash. Equally annoying. Much less power consumed.

      Darpa could prob find a way to play Dancing w the Alien on Kazoo anyway. One of their main missions I think.

  5. Vision Aforethought
    Thumb Up

    Here's to the first solar powered commercial airliner

    A slow ride across the Atlantic, not a drop of carbon based fuel used. Nice!


  6. Neil 51

    Out of interest.... far up does the airspace of a country extend? I'm guessing this could be taken as violating airspace if flown over the wrong country whereas a satellite wouldn't be, but is there a defined limit?

    1. K. Adams

      Kármán line


      The internationally accepted beginning of space, for most intents of purposes (especially Guiness Book of World Records-style record-keeping) is known as the Kármán line, which has been set at 100 kilometers (approximately 62 statute miles, or 54 nautical miles) above sea level by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

      The FAI's official definition of "space-based activities" can be found in the FAI Sporting Code handbook (PDF), on Glossary page 3 (PDF page 52 of 53):


      However, this definition may run afoul of the territorial proclivities of certain twitchy governments.

      I would expect that Russia, China, and the United States probably fall into the "twitchy" category (being the three nations with anything close to "superpower" status in the post-Cold War world), along with North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and India (which are countries with known aerospace and/or nuclear deterrent ambitions). Israel and South Africa may also belong to this group, depending on who you ask...

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Heil 51

      This has come up regarding who has responsibility for rocket launches. AFAIK most national aviation authorities have jurisdiction up to about 65000 ft. Above that you're in what seems to be a bit of gray area, not in national airspace not in "Outer Space" hence covered by the UN treaty on outer space (which is what forced the USSR to pay the clean up costs for their nuke powered satellite dropping on Canada in the 70's).


      1. Neil 51
        Thumb Up

        Thanks guys...

        I realise I could have googled it, but I always prefer getting my info from people interested in the subject.

  7. Graham Bartlett


    Hang on, it's a Vulture and it won't get to a pub for 5 years? I can't think of anyone at El Reg who'd stand for that.

  8. James O'Shea

    there's a difference?

    "Intended originally as a military communications system but which is today the mightiest archive of pornography the world has ever known".

    Let's just say that the main thing that most military men want to communicate about involves porn. Especially sailors. (Hi, Lester!) Let's just say that the owner of the largest porn collection I've ever seen (more than 3 TB, and no I'm not joking, he had three 1 TB external hard drives, plus several dozen DVD-Rs) was a sailor. Nuke submariner, to be precise. Perhaps it's the radiation...

    Pirate icon, 'cause he didn't even pay for the drives or the DVD-Rs or the bandwidth to download that lot, he figured ways to get 'em all for free. Black Bart Roberts reborn, he is.

  9. Ammaross Danan


    "for instance the internet, intended originally as a military communications system but which is today the mightiest archive of pornography the world has ever known"

    With Government backing, it would still have become the mightiest archive of pornography ever known. It just would have been more hush hush (until Clinton or the like got caught surfing it).

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    you missed a spot

    How come you didn't hyperlink the Qinetiq mention. Surely that would help PARIS along?

  11. Gray

    All fall down ...

    Yeh, Boeing. The folks who brought us the "Eye of Sauron" border surveillance snafu the cost us taxpayers MegaBux before it was cancelled and abandoned. One can only hope the "Vulture" will spend its time staring off into space, unfocused, unsorted, lost in a daze.

    At least the bucks come back to Seattle ... no, wait! The corporate suits moved to Chicago! Oh, blast!

  12. Mips
    Jobs Halo


    Clearly it will have to fly above cloud top but below jet stream. I am a bit unfocussed about that.

    How well does prop propulsion work at 65,000ft? How do you make a prop work all the way from sea level to working height?

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