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
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
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
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.