3 Sep 02. Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA – News) said on Tuesday that it won a Pentagon contract to design a fuel cell-based propulsion system for a new pilotless aerial vehicle (UAV) that could eventually stay in the air for weeks rather than days.
Boeing, which last month won a $460m defense contract to speed development of another UAV, the Air Force’s planned X-45B unmanned bomber, said the new long-endurance UAV could play a vital role in future communications systems.
“This UAV technology will enable a wide variety of commercial and military applications,” said Charlie Guthrie, a director at Boeing unmanned systems
Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said the contract awarded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was valued at just over $300,000. The amount is small, but it is only a first step in work on a pilotless aircraft that could revolutionize combat, Ramey said. Fuel cells run on hydrogen, the world’s most abundant element, and emit only water as a byproduct. But it takes large amounts of energy to separate hydrogen from water, which is one of the industry’s biggest hurdles.
A fuel cell-based propulsion system will allow “a huge leap in endurance,” Ramey said. “It would have extremely long endurance at high altitude. It would be measured in weeks rather than days.”
During the first phase of the project, Boeing will lead a team to design the UAV’s fuel cell-based propulsion system, drawing on currently available automotive fuel cell technology, and conduct risk-reduction studies.
In a second phase, planned for 2003, Boeing will build and demonstrate the complete propulsion system, with the actual aircraft to be built in a third phase. Ramey said construction of the new UAV was still “some years off.”
Last month, DARPA gave Boeing a big contract to upgrade its X-45A version of a remote-controlled combat jet, which first flew on May 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The upgraded X-45B pilotless bomber is due to be done by 2005.
The U.S. military, pressed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is moving rapidly to upgrade its current fleet of pilotless spyplanes — used extensively in Afghanistan — in order to strike enemy targets with bombs and other weapons without risking pilots and crews.