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Vulture to circle for years
April 30, 2008 9:06 AM   Subscribe

DARPA has announced the contractors for their "Vulture" UAV system. The plan is to build an aircraft that can stay aloft, uninterrupted, for five years.

This article discusses some of the technical challenges. For comparison, Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk has a maximum endurance of only forty hours.

Similar aircraft have been explored before, most notably with NASA's Helios, which was lost in a crash in 2003.

DARPA's site for the program is a little understated.
posted by backseatpilot (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
WHERE'S MY FLYING CAR?
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:21 AM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Interesting concept. Ignoring the ├╝ber-big-brother aspects for now, one can imagine some serious tech advances that might eventually trickle-down to the general public. Insanely light-weight, long-lived battery technology, for instance.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:25 AM on April 30, 2008


so this is an unattended aircraft - meaning, no crew. What is the 1000 lb payload that it's expected to carry? Purely sensor and communications gear?

First tireless buzzing robot dogs, now this. It's like they never heard of Skynet.
posted by dubold at 9:27 AM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wonder what kinds of new pointless privacy-destroying intrusions anti-terrorist operations large American municipal police departments could develop with such a toy.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:30 AM on April 30, 2008


This is really awesome from a pure engineering standpoint. Also from a future technology one, i.e. techniques, materials and devices they develop will eventually flow to "lower" areas.

That said, this sounds like a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem. Why build one airplane that can stay up for 5 years with no maintenance rather than just N regular aircraft that can spend (N-1)/Nths of their time on the ground? (Or (N-M)/Nths for some M.) Not just cheaper, but also more reliable.

Essentially, the Vulture is an aircraft that operates like a satellite, but is not regulated by orbital mechanics. "It could be positioned over the battle, at 65,000ft versus 260 miles," says Pulliam.

The issue there is that the satellite isn't always above the horizon. So why not a constellation, as with regular commsats and GPS? Granted, multiple satellites, even simple ones, is likely more expensive than even one aircraft. OTOH, you'll need something of the kind for the aircraft anyway--the fact that it's so low means it can cover a lot less area and you'll need your comm endpoints nearby or linked via repeaters. I.e. instead of being limited by orbital mechanics, you are now limited by geometry.

Operating as a pseudo-satellite in the stratosphere and not low Earth orbit would provide a 65dB improvement in communications capability, he says, and significantly increase onboard sensor resolution.

OK, but the aircraft is using 99% of it's power to keep itself aloft, something a satellite doesn't have to do, so how much of that resolution increase is lost to power reduction? And why do I need a 65dB increase in communications when I can already talk to a satellite with a handheld phone? Also: more vulnerable in the stratosphere.
posted by DU at 9:31 AM on April 30, 2008


Back in the day the plan was for crewed aircraft that could fly for five years and carry an actual payload, though this one didn't pan out.

Today the plan is for an aircraft that can fly for five years but with no crew and limited payload.

Back in the day Kennedy said that WE WILL go to the Moon in under nine years, and it was made to happen.

Today Bush proposes that we maybe consider going to the Moon again, except for some reason this time it takes us 11-16 years and to very tentatively do something new like going to Mars takes at least 26 years.

The grand scientific endeavour ambitions of this country suck these days.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:36 AM on April 30, 2008


But you still only get one small packet of peanuts.
posted by Kabanos at 9:37 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


one can imagine some serious tech advances that might eventually trickle-down to the general public.

The first one that springs to mind is something that can do all the work of a satellite without needing to be launched into space. And if something goes wrong, it could be landed, repaired, and relaunched with far less effort than sending up a crew in the shuttle, or building and orbiting an entirely new device.

Something like this could be a massive boon to the communications industry.

Also: more vulnerable in the stratosphere.

Very true, but I would think that in time, these things would end up being a fraction of the cost of something spaced based, and you could simply send up so many that redundancy would be ensured through quantity.
posted by quin at 9:39 AM on April 30, 2008


From what I've heard, the whole project is being set up to fail. Or at least, it's not being done with the expectation of any real success.

I wonder what the poor bastard who got put in charge of it did to deserve it? Looks from his bio like the only thing he's done previously was develop a helicopter-decoy package for UAVs, and some stuff on helicopter rotor quieting. Quite a big step up from that to 5-year-aloft quasi-satellite planes. You'd think that if they were serious about this, they'd get someone with spacecraft experience, since that's basically what they're building. But instead they're promoting someone up from fairly minor projects -- in the government, that's usually a sign of someone who's being promoted in order to clear them out of the way as a roadblock.

I''d look for this whole thing to quietly disappear under the next Administration, no matter who happens to be in charge. (But probably not before a fair bit of money is funneled to some contractor somewhere.) Best thing I'm hoping for is that they'll make some advancements that will turn up elsewhere in the future.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:42 AM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


The grand scientific endeavour ambitions of this country suck these days.

Sending humans to he moon and mars have nothing to do with 'science'.
posted by delmoi at 9:55 AM on April 30, 2008


Sending humans to he moon and mars have nothing to do with 'science'.

I'd like to see you try to do it without science, or without learning anything in the process.
posted by DU at 9:59 AM on April 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


Right now, aircraft are better than satellites for tactical surveillance. You get better resolution from aircraft, and you don't need to wait for them to come in to view over the horizon - they can just loiter over an area.

I think the desire is to have total, uninterrupted recon over an area, and this is one way to do it. The current system has some drawbacks. Aircraft need to be swapped out on a fairly regular basis. Manned aircraft lose some of their situational awareness and knowledge since you're also swapping out flight crews. Unmanned systems retain that awareness because that information is funneled to a centralized command center where swapping out crews does not result in loss of information. Governing multiple UAVs is a HUGE challenge right now, however - swapping over control of the aircraft as they are shuttled in and out of the arena is apparently incredibly difficult.

I agree that the project doesn't really seem to have legs from a military perspective - improving control of existing UAV systems is probably the better way to go. Maybe NOAA or NASA will have a use for it.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:00 AM on April 30, 2008


DU said: OK, but the aircraft is using 99% of it's power to keep itself aloft, something a satellite doesn't have to do, so how much of that resolution increase is lost to power reduction?

The two things have nothing to do with one another. The plane will be much closer and therefore need much less power to communicate anyway, and sensors do not use that much power.

And why do I need a 65dB increase in communications when I can already talk to a satellite with a handheld phone? Also: more vulnerable in the stratosphere.

Bandwidth. You cannot for example hold a self-contained device in your hand that can upload broadband video to a satellite transponder, but you could to the plane.

Also, satellites aren't just pretty expensive, they are fantastically expensive partly because it takes a minimum of 14 kg of fuel to put 1 kg into orbit, and they must be absolutely reliable since it's generally impossible to recover and service them. A typical satellite costs in the USD$100,000,000 range, about half of this being launch costs and half being the cost of building something reliable enough to spend the launch costs on. And technology is not reducing that cost over time.

By contrast, even if it takes a billion dollars to make the UAV practical, it then becomes dirt cheap to build however many of them you want and put them wherever you want. After the first dozen or so are aloft, it's all gravy. There are both good and bad reasons to want to do that, of course.
posted by localroger at 10:06 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Can we get a new naming convention?

When I hear the word "Vulture," I think of "animal that waits around for things to die so it can eat the carcass." Doesn't exactly wonder me with technology, nor does it stir the feelings of patriotic defense.

How about Rainbow Bright Warrior or something?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2008


I'd like to see you try to do it without science, or without learning anything in the process.

You could do it without any science at all. Putting men on the moon is a political and engineering problem. The principles are already known and don't require any new discovery.


I suspect the reasoning behind UAV's instead of satellites is that satellites are extremely vulnerable. A couple of missiles could eliminate orbit as a platform forever. Any opponent of the United States would be foolish to not try and deny GPS in a conflict.
posted by srboisvert at 10:13 AM on April 30, 2008


Sending humans to he moon and mars have nothing to do with 'science'.

Applied science endeavours then, or engineering endeavours, if we must hate on human spaceflight.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:15 AM on April 30, 2008


How about Rainbow Bright Warrior or something?

The military doesn't like names that have connotations to things that explode, burn and sink.
posted by vbfg at 10:19 AM on April 30, 2008


Sending humans to he moon and mars have nothing to do with 'science'.

But it has everything to do with SCIENCE!
posted by loquacious at 10:32 AM on April 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm puzzled by the notion that we're likely to see any sort of energy-tech trickle-down to the consumer level from such a project.

Military and surveillance projects (like spy satellites) have used exotic and expensive power technologies (like fancy solar cells and isotope generators) for decades with little obvious effect at the consumer level. Even crappy low-efficiency solar cells are cost-prohibitive and I haven't been able to go camping with a handy-dandy DecayAWattTM all decade.

I don't think the relatively small project size and the pork-barrel mentality that rules military budgeting is a combination that's likely to push the envelope much. There's no incentive to spend $10M figuring out how to make a widget cheaply when its actually considered better to spend $100M (in your district) just making the damn widget out of pure money.

Once, this sort of iniative did seem to push envelopes and spur new developments. Today the latest-and-greatest electronic and battery tech debuts in laptops and Blackberries. The latest-and-greatest materials tech debuts in tennis rackets and golf clubs.

You'd think the last 10 years of our involvement in the Middle East would have convinced us that Panopticon Incarnate isn't going to solve our problems, anyway.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:58 AM on April 30, 2008


In other vulture news: Asian vultures could be extinct in the wild within 10 years unless a livestock drug blamed for their rapid demise is eliminated, scientists warn.

Perhaps this is another example of product diversity replacing biodiversity.
posted by homunculus at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2008


From what I've heard, the whole project is being set up to fail.

Really? It seems like this is component of a least some greater scheme at DARPA. There is a DARPA BAA out right now looking for a "Video and Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool" which is geared towards UAV video. The solicitation states that they want tools that can extract data from camera systems with a field of view that exceeds 25 km^2. There is also a DARPA SBIR solicitation (SB082-056) out right now for solar cell innovations. It would seem to me that the Vulture makes a lot of tactical sense. The vulture could capture large overhead views of an area, pipe this back to a "VIRAT" command station which does the computational heavy lifting and then dispatches more nimble UAVs and UGVs to areas of interest.
posted by kscottz at 11:03 AM on April 30, 2008


This is really awesome from a pure engineering standpoint.

To quote McLuhan - "the voice of the current somnambulism."
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:50 AM on April 30, 2008


Infinite flight vultures. Next up: Nuclear Monkeys!
posted by blue_beetle at 12:19 PM on April 30, 2008


Dear DARPA: it's called a blimp.
posted by casarkos at 12:31 PM on April 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


Pork might fly...
posted by pompomtom at 5:19 PM on April 30, 2008


DU writes "OK, but the aircraft is using 99% of it's power to keep itself aloft, something a satellite doesn't have to do, so how much of that resolution increase is lost to power reduction? And why do I need a 65dB increase in communications when I can already talk to a satellite with a handheld phone?"

Be nice to have the same functionality in a bluetooth earset size package that'll run for a month on a hearing aid battery.
posted by Mitheral at 9:43 PM on April 30, 2008


The US govt. must have some avid Starcraft players among its ranks.
posted by voltairemodern at 6:05 AM on May 1, 2008


This is actually a big deal, with huge savings. Satellite space is basically gone and carries a huge price tag, and having a better and more serviceable transmitter in the vicinity that can handle all digital traffic commercially, phones and movie downloads, without wiring, is the holy grail of telecommunications. Towers aren't tall enough. Blimps have issues at high enough altitudes to avoid weather. Solar power is freely available.
posted by Brian B. at 6:39 AM on May 1, 2008


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