Aurora Flight Science plans to fly Odysseus, a long-endurance, high-altitude drone, powered by solar cells and batteries, for the first time in spring 2019.

The Boeing subsidiary initially aims to pitch the autonomous unmanned air vehicle as a platform for scientific instruments to study the Earth’s climate and weather. A high-altitude, long endurance aircraft would be useful for measuring vegetation density, ice coverage and flow rates, and ground moisture, the company says.

High-altitude, long-endurance drones are also gaining attention from the world’s militaries, which view the aircraft as possible pseudo-satellites to host intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, a role Aurora Flight Sciences says its Odysseus could also play.


Odysseus, an unmanned air vehicle designed to fly at high altitudes for long duration

Credit: Aurora Flight Sciences

In August, Airbus Defence & Space earned a new world record for aerial endurance by keeping its Zephyr S solar-powered unmanned air vehicle aloft for about 26 days – nearly twice as long as the previous record flight. The UK Ministry of Defence has three of the UAVs on order, which are being built at a factory in Farnborough.

For its part, the US Army Futures Command, a new group leading the service’s modernisation efforts, is enthusiastic about using high-altitude unmanned air vehicles for a variety of missions, including as communications hubs. Willie Nelson, director of the US Army Futures Command’s assured positioning, navigation and timing cross-functional team, said in October that he traveled to the UK to visit Airbus to learn more about the Zephyr. He said he is interested in partnering with Airbus and the MoD on the programme.

Others are pursuing long-endurance UAVs too, including BAE Systems, which in May laid out plans to invest in UK technology firm Prismatic's development of a UAV, and AeroVironment, which in January created a joint venture with Japanese telecommunications firm SoftBank Corp to develop a UAV for commercial telecommunications operations.

Odysseus’s structure is largely made of carbon fibre, with the aircraft’s total weight equaling less than a Smart car, says Aurora Flight Sciences. It has a payload of 25kg (55lb), a power capacity of 250W and a wingspan of 74.1m (243ft). The aircraft is designed to have a flight endurance of several months.