Odysseus Unmanned Aircraft Revealed by Aurora

April 23, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

Aurora Flight Sciences recently revealed the details of its new solar-powered airplane at the Boston Museum of Science. Called Odysseus, the radical new aircraft is not only unmanned, but it can stay aloft for up to five years. Aurora has been working in conjunction with its partners Sierra Nevada, Draper Laboratory and BAE Systems.

Aurora and its partners were recently awarded a contract for the development of this new aircraft from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Phase 1 contract requires that they begin development of the radical new aircraft under the DARPA program known as ‘Vulture’. Floating at between 60 000 and 90 000 feet, it is thought that the new aircraft system could act as a satellite substitute for communications or it could be used for reconnaissance. Powered by 5kW of onboard power, the aircraft will probably prove more vulnerable to missiles than a satellite as it is low enough to be targeted by fighter jets. However, its proximity to earth will greatly improve communications capability and sensor resolution.

This is not the first high-profile task that has been assigned to Aurora. The company is also currently involved in building the Global Hawk UAV as well as having been commissioned to work on vehicles for NASA in the past. So it came as no surprise when it was Aurora that presented the winning design for this difficult project. Odysseus makes use of solar energy for power and it is probably this facet of the design which was most appealing. Other designs would have required constant refueling or adjustments.

The fact that Aurora has been given the project doesn’t mean that the hard work is all over. The project is so complex that it will most likely require several advancements in various fields of engineering in order to make it viable. For one thing, the aircraft will be exposed to more warming and cooling than satellites. It will receive more ultraviolet radiation and it will have to maintain a relatively constant speed despite excessive, strong winds. It will also most probably need very large wings in order to accommodate the solar cells it will require. The materials used will thus need to be very durable – especially when one considers that there will be hydrogen storage tanks attached to the aircraft.

Over the course of the next year, the system will be refined and improved on until the project is ready to move on to Phase 2, when it will be developed and tested. Phase 3 will involve a full-scale working model of the aircraft, which will demonstrate the aircraft’s capabilities for a period of about one year. Clearly Aurora can look to an interesting future as it starts to develop the Odysseus more fully.

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