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Friday, Feb 3, 2023
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Staying Aloft Takes More Than Air

In a building in Simi Valley sits a partially finished 70-foot-long unmanned aircraft that is truly something special. It’s designed to stay aloft for a week, powered by a combustion engine fueled by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. But when the unmanned Global Observer will take to the air again is anybody’s guess. The AeroVironment Inc. aircraft has been grounded for more than three years due to a lack of funding to continue flight tests. This at a time when Boeing Co. in Chicago is testing its own high-altitude, hydrogen-powered drone called Phantom Eye at Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley. Now, AeroVironment has taken steps to get its large drone, which has wings spanning 175 feet, airborne once again. It has reached an agreement with aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, in Bethesda, Md., to help in development of the aircraft. And it is in a joint venture in Turkey to try to obtain flight-test financing from potential buyers who might want to fund development. “It is easy to write (our own) check and pay for new development and there are times when that makes sense,” said Steve Gitlin, a spokesman for AeroVironment. “But it’s also important to secure customer funding to engage them in the program.” The unfinished aircraft in Simi Valley is the second Global Observer built by AeroVironment, which is headquartered in Monrovia but operates its unmanned aircraft factory and testing facility in the Ventura County city. The first plane flew nine tests at Edwards before crashing in April 2011 just as a $140 million U.S. military development contract expired. The crash was a big blow to Aerovironment, which has built its drone business on far smaller craft. During the peak of the U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the company supplied the Raven, Puma and Wasp, hand-launched drones used for short-duration reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. The largest of the three, the Raven, has a 3 feet long, weighs only 4.2 pounds and costs no more than $200,000. By contrast, Gitlin said, the Global Observer will cost in the tens of millions of dollars. The difference in cost reflects the size and mission of the Global Observer. The three smaller drones were generally used for real-time battlefield reconnaissance. Military reconnaissance also is a prime mission capability for the Global Observer but it also can be used for hurricane and storm tracking, communications relays and tracking vessels along a coast. “It can deliver broadband Internet access to remote areas,” Gitlin said. “We think of Global Observer as a 12-mile high cell tower.” Chief Executive Tim Conver identified the Global Observer as one of the growth areas for AeroVironment during the fiscal year ending April 30. In a conference call with analysts last month, Conver said there would be increased investment in the aircraft in the second half of the fiscal year but he was not specific. “We’re increasing investments because we’re getting market signals and customer feedback that is consistent with their accelerated consideration of adoption,” Conver said during the call. Michael Blades, a senior aerospace industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm in Mountain View, said that hydrogen-powered drones like Global Observer and Boeing’s Phantom Eye are lower-cost alternatives to the Global Hawk made by Northrop Grumman Corp. in Falls Church, Va. That aircraft was extensively used in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones for reconnaissance and costs about $131 million. Other uses include weather tracking. That higher price tag buys the Global Hawk a much faster cruising speed of more than 350 mph compared to the roughly 125 mph the Global Observer can achieve. But the Global Hawk is only designed to stay up 35 hours, not seven days. “If there are other countries doing research they might be able to go with Global Observer as opposed to the Global Hawk,” said Blades, who said the AeroVironment craft has the ability to provide lengthy reconnaissance at a relatively inexpensive price. Early prototypes The concept of a high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft goes back to the 1980s for AeroVironment when it built some early flying-wing prototypes. These aircraft, with names such as Pathfinder and Helios, used solar cells to power electric motors and were tested at Edwards Air Force Base. Helios set a record with an altitude of 97,000 feet in 2001 before crashing two years later. The company found that the craft could fly for long periods using solar cells, but the power generated – particularly in winter – was not enough to enable aircraft to consistently fly at a high altitude. “We concluded that a different architecture would make sense and that architecture was an airplane powered by hydrogen,” Gitlin said. In 2005, the company made a one-third scale Global Observer prototype that flew in Nevada using a fuel cell to show that a hydrogen-powered aircraft would work. Two years later, AeroVironment was awarded a four-year, $140 million Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration contract from the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to further develop the full-sized aircraft. It is made from carbon fiber and weighs the same as a fully-loaded sport utility vehicle. The company decided to change the propulsion system yet again, moving from a fuel cell to a combustion engine that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity that turns an electric motor. Testing of the system was done in Simi Valley in a specialized chamber that replicated what the aircraft would experience during its climb, loiter and descent stages. Flight tests on Global Observer began in 2010 using batteries to power the aircraft. The first use of the hydrogen-oxygen fuel was January 2011 and achieved an altitude of 5,000 feet. Just three months later, during the ninth flight test, Global Observer crashed after reaching 30,000 feet and staying aloft for 18 hours. The government investigated the crash but never released its report on the cause. “What we can say is it had nothing to do with the innovations we developed to allow Global Observer to operate,” Gitlin said. At the time of the crash, AeroVironment led the way in testing a high-altitude hydrogen-powered drone. But with the Global Observer grounded due to lack of funding, other aircraft have emerged as competition. The Phantom Eye drone built by Boeing at a St. Louis plant also has been tested at Edwards. In September, the plane completed its ninth test reaching an altitude of 53,000 feet during an eight-hour flight, said Brad Shaw, program manager for Phantom Eye. Phantom Eye is self-funded by Boeing, but Shaw would not disclose how much the company has spent. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, however, has disclosed it has given Boeing a $6.8 million contract to take a payload up in the Phantom Eye. Both aircraft are similar in size and capabilities. Phantom Eye has a wingspan of 150 feet, can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet and has a maximum speed of 230 miles per hour. Boeing developed the combustion hydrogen engines in conjunction with Ford Motor Co. “Hydrogen is a very efficient method to create the amount of energy needed for long endurance,” Shaw said. While both AeroVironment and Boeing have an eye on getting their planes to both military and commercial customers, the analyst Blades is of the opinion that their aircraft serve only a niche market. The Global Observer and Phantom Eye are larger than many drones already on the market or in development but so far don’t have their endurance because of the limited flight testing. The Predator is a mid-size aircraft built by General Atomics, in San Diego that can stay aloft for 24 hours. It is capable of firing missiles and has been used extensively by the U.S. Air Force and CIA in warzones. And there are large, light-weight solar-powered drones being developed by such players as Airbus SAS, in Toulouse, France and Google Inc., in Mountain View, that aim to stay aloft for months, if not years, at a time. “They are hedging their bets it might be a while before solar-powered (aircraft) can come to the forefront,” Blades said. Strategic alliances For now, though, the biggest challenge is to get Global Observer flying again, which will take more capital. In February, AeroVironment announced reaching a technical agreement with Lockheed Martin to jointly work on developing the Global Observer. Lockheed, however, will make no monetary contribution. But the larger company – which has its advanced “Skunk Works” unit in Palmdale – has significant technical and business development capabilities that can be beneficial in securing customers for the aircraft. “Their international scope and relations exceed ours,” Gitlin said. Lockheed officials did not respond to calls for comment. Also, in February, AeroVironment and an undisclosed partner formed a joint venture in Turkey called Altoy Defence Industries and Aviation Inc. The Monrovia firm has a 49 percent stake in the venture, based in Ankara. Several months later, AeroVironment and Altoy partnered with Turkish military and industrial electronics firm Aselsan A.S., also in Ankara, to provide components for use on the Global Observer and to market the aircraft. The idea is that these partnerships and investments will lead to sales in the region. “It is pursuing interested parties in Turkey and elsewhere for whom Global Observer can deliver a valuable capability,” Gitlin said. Blades said the type of partnership between AeroVironment and Lockheed – in which a large defense contractor joins with a smaller company trying to making inroads into the commercial market – is not uncommon. Lockheed has only entered the unmanned aircraft market in the past few years and that has been accomplished through acquisitions. AeroVironment, while smaller, has name recognition in that corner of the aerospace industry, he said. “There are going to be more of these strategic partnerships and the leveraging of their respective expertise for the betterment of both companies,” Blades added.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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