The Global Observer
The Global Observer, made by Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment Inc., is bigger than a 767, flies in the stratosphere up to 65,000 feet, twice as high as Mount Everest - out of sight and out of range of most anti-aircraft missiles. From there it will be able to see 600 miles in every direction, enough to cover the entire country of Afghanistan.
It is powered entirely by liquid hydrogen fuel - light enough to power the drone for a week at a time, far longer than anything in use today. "It uses hydrogen for fuel, which has three times the energy density of gasoline, which enables it to fly much longer and at much lower costs and - oh, by the way, has zero emissions," AeroVironment CEO Tim Conver told ABC News.
The aircraft weighs about as much as a large SUV, but in order for it to fly so high for so long, the wing span has to be enormous - about half a football field. That way even when you can't see it, it can see you.
"It turns into a guided missile," AeroVironment's Steve Gitlin said, "and it'll follow the target if the target moves."
The new drone takes that unmanned capability much further, doing the work of a satellite for just tens of millions of dollars - some analysts say it would cost about $30 million - compared with hundreds of millions to $1 billion for a satellite. Unlike satellites, it can be up within hours and has the ability to instantly reposition.
The plane orbits above a target for a week at a time. In addition to on-board cameras that offer an unblinking eye, communications equipment offers cell phone, TV and broadband Internet for the same area.
When it refuels, a second plane takes its place. The military would swap out the plane every week, so it has constant surveillance.
It has an interchangeable payload that can carry cameras or communications equipment. The company initially envisioned it as a cheap way to supply broadband Internet, television and phone service cheaply in the Third World.
It has the potential for a more controversial use: border patrol. "Certainly if one wanted to see what was going on their border, looking at a 600-mile swath or area from one point would be a good way to do that," Conver said. [Hendren/ABCNews/24January2011]