Boeing is under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to create a solar-powered airplane that can stay in the air for five years straight. The project is supervised by DARPA and is called the SolarEagle, which will be an unmanned aircraft that will begin its first flight in 2014, serving as a sensor and communications platform for the military and could potentially turn into cheaper communications and reconnaissance satellites.
SolarEagle will be tasked with maintaining persistent and “consistent communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from altitudes above 60,000 feet,” according to Pat O’Neil of Boeing. The task will be especially difficult given the 5-year timeframe. To date, a manned plane was able to make a 24-hour flight and British defense unmanned aircrafts have flown for an 83-hour record. SolarEagle’s immediate challenge will be to stay afloat in the upper atmosphere for 30 days with its 30-foot wingspan and highly efficient motors and propellers.