Large Solar Plane Project Begins

England’s Newcastle University is collaborating with Boeing and U.K. technology firm QinetiQ to create a new solar powered airplane. The program is called SolarEagle, and is being developed as a spy craft for the United States government. We previously reported on the $89 million dollar project in October of last year.

Part of the ‘Vulture II’ program and funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which has a $3.2 billion annual budget, the SolarEagle is being designed to stay in the air for five years. And if that wasn’t a challenge enough, the plane has a proposed wingspan of almost 400 hundred feet, about the size of a professional American football-field. The aircraft is the largest proposed plane of its kind, and is being targeted for use in communications and data gathering.

Image via Boeing

If completed, the unmanned solar craft will fly over 11 miles above Earth, storing power in fuel cells during the light of day for use at night. Engineers at Newcastle University, led by professor Barrie Mecrow, are tasked with developing a motor that is four-times more efficient than a conventional airplane, and one that can also withstand the sub-zero temperatures of the high altitude. The motor must also be incredibly light weight, so light that in a video about the project James Widmer of the Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives says the SolarEagle is akin to a giant paper-plane.

Newcastle University hopes to have two prototypes ready in the next six months for testing, but the SolarEagle isn’t expected to be completed until early 2014. Last year, partnering firm QinetiQ’s much smaller aircraft, the Zephyr, made a two-week journey using only solar power. A remarkable accomplishment, but far from the proposed five year journey of the SolarEagle.

Aaron Colter is a freelance writer and marketing consultant in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Purdue University, he has worked for the NCAA, Dark Horse Comics, Willamette Week, AOL, The Huffington Post, Top Shelf Productions, DigitalTrends, theMIX agency, SuicideGirls, EarthTechling, d'Errico Studios and others. He is also the co-founder of BananaStandMedia.com, a free record label, recording studio, and distribution service for independent musicians.