The VICE Channels

    The Green Drone of the Future Will Never Come Down

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Drones have become synonymous with phantom death, and yes, it is indeed freaky to know that a pilot at a remote console can kill people from incredible distances, all while watching it unfold on a screen. There’s certainly a moral dilemma there, which is why it’s been great to see drone warfare debated so publicly in recent days. But let’s drop the comparisons of drones to carpet bombing for a second; for as ruthless and Big Brother-y as they can be, drones are absolute marvels of technology. And they’re only getting more advanced.

    Last week our own Jonathan Liu highlighted some new drone patents coming down the pipe, which include bouncing, swarming, and transforming versions. That sounds all well and good, but also kind of gives (at least to my own paranoid self) a real “bugs from Starship Troopers” vibe. So how might an aerospace contractor clean up the drone image? Why, by going green, of course.

    Boeing’s Phantom Eye, which we first heard about way back in 2010, has been touted as a high altitude, long endurance (HALE) UAV that Boeing claims will be able to stay aloft at 65,000 feet for four continuous days. Now that it has finally completed its first take-off and landing, that claim is a little bit closer to reality.

    Still, the question remains: how will the craft pull off such a remarkable feat of efficiency? First, it has a large 150-foot wingspan, which should offer good gliding efficiency. But the key is in the Phantom Eye’s propulsion: a pair of hydrogen-powered 2.3 liter 4-cylinder engines that will produce about 150 horsepower a pop. But, wait, hydrogen? Yeah, you got that right, and Boeing is already hyping it.

    “The hydrogen propulsion system will be the key to Phantom Eye’s success,” Phantom Eye program manager Drew Mallow said at the drone’s unveiling. “It is very efficient and offers great fuel economy, and its only byproduct is water, so it’s also a ‘green’ aircraft.”

    That’s all well and good, but as the Phantom Eye gets closer to hitting service (well, maybe; it’s been hit with delays so far), it’s time to ignore the giddy green-touting of hydrogen fuel and discuss how absurdly capable the Phantom Eye actually is. Yes, it’s great that the Phantom Eye only spits out water in its exhaust, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that this UAV brings armed forces more ability to always have an eye in the sky. Four days of flight between down time is incredible from a surveillance perspective, offering a combination of longevity and flexibility that other planes and satellites can’t match.

    That’s the part that Boeing really wants to advertise. As noted by CNET from the Phantom Eye’s launch, Boeing has said the UAV “could open up a whole new market in collecting data and communications.” In other words, being able to keep a surveillance drone in the air for so long helps further ensure that intelligence departments miss nothing.

    That’s four days straight that a Phantom Eye (what a name) can spend surveying whatever without blinking. Not that that’s inherently bad, and the military is surely always happy with more capability. Just don’t let the green hype fool you. The really stunning thing about the Phantom Eye isn’t that hydrogen might power the future of our drone fleet. It’s that the Phantom Eye is pushing us towards a future where our drone fleet never comes down.

    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.