The Boeing Phantom Eye was a next generation UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) with its most unique facet being the liquid hydrogen-based propulsion system, showcasing efficiency and range as key qualities. Such a propulsion system meant that there would be no excessive engine exhaust or inherent fuel waste with water being the only byproduct outputted by the engines - in essence, making the Phantom Eye a "green-minded" UAV (the fuel conversion technology was, however, expensive at the time of the Phantom Eye's inception). Other UAV systems in the same UAV class largely made use of gasoline-fueled engines (Predator/Reaper) or, more recently, full-turbofan engine technology (Global Hawk) to help advance UAV operational ranges and mission capabilities.
The aircraft was formally classified as a "High Altitude, Long Endurance" ("HALE") Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).
The Boeing Phantom Eye UAV was the product of the secretive Boeing "Phantom Works" branch whose work is similar in scope to the equally-secretive Lockheed "Skunk Works" facility operated by competitor Lockheed Martin, the well-known makers of the F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter" of the 1980s. Boeing was entertaining various avenues for its Phantom Eye product - either civilian or military in nature - where the aircraft could be used to monitor a variety of changing situations on the ground over a lengthy period of time.
Recent American combat experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq naturally brought about a set of new requirements for all branches of military service - this being the beneficial byproduct of any prolonged dynamic war endeavor. UAVs, therefore, began to play a greater role in U.S. military operations since the start of the 2001 and 2003 invasions prompting newer and enhanced solutions to fulfill the various over-battlefield roles, particularly those concerning intelligence-gathering, where satellites could, at times, prove limited in their reach and manned observation flights were often not viable alternatives. UAVs promoted relatively quieter solutions as well as longer loitering times in which to spy on enemy activities, often times from miles away at altitude, delivering real-time information back to discerning eyes on the ground.
Boeing took to designing a earlier UAV form which was known as the "Condor" and this platform served as a valuable research drone first flying in 1988. After some 300 hours of data, the system was formally retired to the Hiller Aviation Museum of San Mateo, California with the Phantom Eye growing as an evolution of the Condor project. The initiative also involved other firms to include Aurora Flight Sciences, Ball Aerospace, Ford and MAHLE Powertrain, each bringing about a particular expertise needed in forging what would become the Phantom Eye UAV concept. As with other revolutionary UAV designs before it, the Phantom Eye - at least at this point - is not intended to be armed and maintains a core position as an airborne reconnaissance/surveillance system designed to spy on targets for lengthy periods of time. If the Phantom Eye program succeeds, it will have produced a UAV that is able to keep tabs on a particular situation for days on end. Should the program itself evolve into something more, it opens up the possibilities of UAVs being able stay airborne for weeks at a time, perhaps even months into the future.
The outward design of the Phantom Eye certainly did not exude any sort of exquisite styling by any measure, its profile being dominated by a bulbous fuselage, thin wings of 150 feet span, and a stalk-like tail stem. The Phantom Eye abandoned the usual stealth characteristics in favor of pure range and altitude and its appearance became a byproduct of such a design initiative. The fuselage was football-shaped with the wide-spanning monoplane wings fitted high atop the body for maximum lift. The wings would droop down noticeably with the vehicle at rest - but canted upwards when in air - and were supported by thin struts located at the sides of the fuselage. The fuselage contoured elegantly into the thin empennage which sported a single vertical tail fin and a pair of downward-canted horizontal planes, completing the inverted "Y" arrangement of the tail fins. The Phantom Eye was propelled by a pair of engines housed in streamlined nacelles, each sporting four-bladed propeller units.
The aircraft was fitted with a pair of engines that were also found in the civilian Ford "Fusion" line of civilian automobiles. Unlike their combustion-centered brethren, this version of the Fusion engine was highly modified to take advantage of liquid-hydrogen propulsion technology resulting in a more economical UAV propulsion system. The installed powerplants were Ford 2-liter, 4-cylinder units developing 150 horsepower each and allowing for speeds upwards of 170 miles-per-hour - on par with modern helicopters. The engines wrapped up testing in a controlled environment on March 1st, 2010.
The Phantom Eye UAV was marketed with a four-day loiter time and could reach altitudes in excess of 65,000 feet - atmosphere territory only until recently reserved for jet-powered, manned aircraft. Its cargo hold could carry 450lb to 500lb of mission equipment.
It was first unveiled to the public on July 12th, 2010 in a Boeing display at their St Louis, Missouri facility. Ground testing of the aircraft commenced at the end of 2010 at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center of Edwards Air Force Base in California. From there, Phantom Eye undertook its first-flight on June 1st, 2012 (delayed from 2011). Boeing also pursued other related UAV projects that include a larger version of the Phantom Eye slated to push the endurance boundary even further - by as much as 10 days according to sources, and carry an even larger internal payload of specialized equipment.
February 2014 - The Phantom Eye had its status revised by the USAF to experimental service with the 412th Operations Group.
August 2016 - No longer in active testing/service, the sole Phantom Eye aircraft built by Boeing was disassembled for showcasing at the Air Force Flight Test Museum.
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