Look, up in the air! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it, perhaps, a satellite?
Actually, it's none of the above ... and all of the above ... and perhaps, something better than any of the above. With the backing of an $89 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Boeing (NYSE: BA ) is bringing unmanned air flight into the stratosphere under a project dubbed "Vulture II."
Last week, the company announced it has won a contract for its "SolarEagle" stratospheric drifter. While technically an airplane, however, Boeing's new craft is a totally new concept in flight. Several companies -- QinetiQ (also a key supplier for SolarEagle), AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV ) , Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) , and even Boeing itself with its Phantom Eye -- are already competing to produce "High Altitude, Long Endurance" (HALE) aircraft, capable of flying at altitude for days at a time. But Vulture II aims to create a craft that will exceed HALE's goal many times over -- a device designed to float more than 10 miles above the Earth's surface, and for years at a time, keeping a watch on events down here on the ground.
While SolarEagle won't exactly orbit the Earth, the difference between doing that, and what SolarEagle actually does, is barely even semantic. Powered by the sun (as opposed to the usual jellied dinosaur-bones concoction), SolarEagle will boast a 400-foot wingspan -- crucial to its success, as these wings will bear the solar panels powering its flight. While Boeing only revealed that SolarEagle will operate "above 60,000 feet," original requirements called for a plane that can travel at up to 90,000. That height, about 17 miles above the earth, is far enough up that the plane can conceivably substitute for more expensive communications relay and reconnaissance satellites.
Mind you: Boeing doesn't have a lock on this project yet. It's only one of three companies competing to fulfill DARPA's desires -- the other two being Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) and privately held Aurora Flight Science, who both received funding in the first round of the competition. Also bear in mind that any significant revenues from this project remain quite a ways off. Boeing isn't expected to perform a demonstration flight until 2014, and actual orders for even low-rate production of the new superplanes are even farther out.
In other words: It's not yet time to pin a tail on the winning Vulture. But at least we can begin circling the prospects.