The Pentagon spent millions developing a humongous hydrogen-fueled drone that, it hoped, could fly at soaring altitudes for a week at a time. Now the drone is all on its lonesome, because no one wants to buy it.
Built by drone manufacturer AeroVironment, the Global Observer is a 70-foot-long jumbo drone with a wingspan nearly as long as one of the Air Force’s B-52 bombers. Powered by liquid-hydrogen fuel cells, it was billed as a persistent eye-in-the-sky capable of loitering at 65,000 feet for a week a time without spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Pentagon also envisioned many missions. The drone’s 380-pound payload of spy cameras and sensors could stare at a diameter of 600 miles of earth at once, while doubling as a communications relay. It could patrol the oceans and possibly track hurricanes — the Department of Homeland Security was interested in it too.
But now no one wants the giant drone. “Currently, no service or defense agency has advocated for it to be a program,” Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann told InsideDefense (subscription only) in April. This was after spending $27.9 million developing the drone since 2007, which came to an end in December when the Pentagon closed down its development contract, the trade journal reports.
When emailed by Danger Room, the Pentagon didn’t elaborate on the reasons why. “Global Observer was a technology demonstration, not a program,” spokesperson Maureen Schumann wrote. But the Global Observer had run into danger before.
The first prototype, the GO-1, was destroyed in a crash during a test flight — its ninth test — at Edwards Air Force Base in April 2011. (The cause hasn’t been revealed.) The Pentagon had also ordered a second prototype called the GO-2 before the first prototype’s crash, but then renegotiated with the company to buy back the drone before it was completed. It also had a litany of now-former sponsors: the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command — and the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Strategic Command and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
So AeroVironment is stuck with it. “Our production facility has the ability to produce up to five air vehicles per year, our core team is intact and our strategic supply chain ready to move forward when we secure the commitment to do so,” company spokesman Steven Gitlin told InsideDefense in a statement. If all else fails, another option would be for the company itself to fly the GO-2 and “sell the information or service it provides.” But that’s an open question.
Nor is the Global Observer the only giant hydrogen-powered spy drone on the market.
Boeing wants to sell the military on its Phantom Eye drone, which has similar specs and size to the Global Observer. In April, the company took a scale model of its competitor to the Navy’s Sea Air Space Convention, marketing it as a flying communications relay hub for a Navy that’s been trying to better network its warships together. But Boeing’s drone has to overcome a checkered history as well, including a failed attempt by the Missile Defense Agency to stick a laser on it, and technical problems that delayed its first test flight. When it did take to the skies, a landing accident broke the Phantom Eye’s nose landing gear.
A recent flight test for Phantom Eye — it’s third — on April 20 at Edwards Air Force Base had better results. “Phantom Eye climbed to 10,000 feet and remained aloft for 2 hours and 15 minutes –- a dramatic increase from the Feb. 25, flight test when the demonstrator aircraft reached 8,000 feet during that 67-minute flight,” Deborah VanNierop, a spokesperson with the Boeing Phantom Works division tells Danger Room. “We do not have a date scheduled at this time for the next flight, but our goal is to continue routine flight testing until Phantom Eye reaches its maximum planned altitude of up to 65,000 feet.”
Both of these giant drones were also going up against Northrop Grumman’s unarmed Global Hawk, which has already flown thousands of hours of missions for the Air Force over Afghanistan to Libya. Though it’s not certain whether the Air Force will keep the Global Hawk over long term, as it recently sliced off more than $100 million in research spending for the program, and has stopped buying more of them.
It’ll be a tougher job convincing the military to buy a whole other new surveillance drone. Which means the Global Observer’s fate looks like a glum and lonely one.
Resource : Wired.com