Boeing Envisions a Future Laser-Carrying Unmanned Aircraft

 - May 18, 2015, 3:03 PM
The Phantom Eye high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft is being kept in 'flyable storage' at NASA Armstrong. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing Defense is exploring uses for its Phantom Eye high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system (UAS) with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and possible commercial customers. Among longer-term applications, the aircraft demonstrates the potential of a “stratospheric, persistent directed energy” platform that could be equipped with a laser for tracking missiles, said the president of Boeing’s Phantom Works research and development unit.

The liquid hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye performed a ninth flight last September, reaching an altitude of 54,000 feet and staying aloft for eight to nine hours, said Darryl Davis, Phantom Works president. During the flight, it collected “primarily environmental data” for different potential customers. “They wanted to understand the stability of the platform at altitude,” he said. “As you look at future sensing missions, particularly from an ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] perspective,” the Phantom Eye “allows you to do a lot of things with future sensors that you can’t do with faster UASs.”

Davis said that industry and U.S. national laboratories are focused on building smaller lasers, and he could envision a Phantom Eye-like UAS carrying a solid-state laser to designate targets for missile defense or for other missions. “As some of those payloads start to become more efficient and smaller in size, with higher power outputs, we could easily see, potentially in the next two decades, that you could have that kind of a platform doing a sensing mission, for sure, and potentially even some communications missions as well as evolving someday to being more of a stratospheric, persistent directed energy platform,” he said.

The Phantom Eye is being kept in “flyable storage” at the NASA Armstrong flight research center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Davis told reporters on May 18 in St. Louis. Boeing hopes to return the aircraft to flight status soon, he added.