Boeing subsidiary says its solar-powered Odysseus drone will fly high in 2019

Odysseus drone
An artist’s conception shows the Odysseus aircraft in flight. (Aurora Flight Sciences Illustration)

Aurora Flight Sciences, a pioneer in experimental flying vehicles that became a Boeing subsidiary last year, says its solar-powered, high-altitude, long-endurance Odysseus drone will take on its first flight in the spring of 2019.

Odysseus has been years in the making, part of an effort that dates back to the Daedalus Project in the 1980s, before Aurora was founded. MIT’s human-powered Daedalus plane set records in 1988 with a 72-mile flight over the Aegean Sea from Crete to Santorini. One of the leaders of that project was John Langford, who went on to become Aurora’s president and CEO.

“Aurora was founded by the idea that technology and innovation can provide powerful solutions to tough problems that affect all of humankind,” Langford said today in a news release. “Odysseus was an idea born out of Daedalus that is now a real solution to advancing the important research around climate change and other atmospheric chemistry problems.”

Aviation Week reported that Odysseus’ first flight has been scheduled to take place in Puerto Rico on April 23, 2019, the anniversary of Daedalus’ Aegean flight. The first battery-powered test craft is currently undergoing ground testing, and two more solar-powered aircraft are in the works, according to Aviation Week.

Aurora says the wide-winged aircraft can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of a satellite, and can spend far more time aloft than a conventional drone — on the order of months.

“Odysseus offers persistence like no other solar aircraft of its kind, which is why it is such a capable and necessary platform for researchers,” Langford said. “Odysseus will indeed change the world.”

Today’s status report emphasized Odysseus’ role as an autonomous observational platform for climate and atmospheric research, and that will serve as the first application. The plane is capable of carrying instruments that monitor the movement of storm systems, or measure vegetation, ice coverage and ground moisture.

However, Odysseus can also serve as a platform for surveillance, communication and connectivity. It could address the same capabilities that Facebook was looking for when it launched its Aquila drone development program several years ago.

Facebook canceled the Aquila program this June, saying that it would instead “work with partners” on high-altitude connectivity platforms. Could Odysseus take Aquila’s place? Aurora didn’t immediately respond to an email asking about that possibility.

In a video, Langford said the Odysseus program meshed well with Boeing’s vision for the future of flight.

“At Boeing, our corporate motto is to connect, protect, explore and inspire, and I don’t know of another project that embodies all four of those elements as well as the Odysseus solar-powered airplane,” he said.

Previously: Boeing CEO sees Facebook as rival or partner

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