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AeroVironment Global Observer

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Title: AeroVironment Global Observer  
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AeroVironment Global Observer

The AeroVironment Global Observer is a concept for a high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, designed by AeroVironment (AV) to operate as a stratospheric geosynchronous satellite system with regional coverage.

Two Global Observer aircraft, each flying for up to a week at an altitude of 55,000 to 65,000 feet (17,000 to 20,000 m), could alternate coverage over any area on the earth, providing a platform for communications relays, remote sensing, or long-term surveillance.

In addition to flying above weather and above other conventional aircraft, operation at this altitude permits communications and sensor payloads on the aircraft to service an area on the surface of the earth up to 600 miles (970 km) in diameter, equivalent to more than 280,000 square miles (730,000 km2) of coverage. Global Observer may offer greater flexibility than a satellite and longer duration than conventional manned and unmanned aircraft.

The Global Observer is currently in development; its first flight was in August 2010,[1] and the first hydrogen-fueled flight was in January 2011.[2] The prototype crashed on its ninth test flight in 2011.[3]


  • Endurance: 5 – 7 days
  • Payload: Up to 400 lbs (180 kg)
  • Operating altitude: 55,000 to 65,000 feet (17,000 to 20,000 m)
  • Propulsion system: Liquid hydrogen-powered internal combustion powerplant driving four high efficiency electric motors. The aircraft does not produce carbon emissions.
  • Wing Span: 175 feet (53 m)
  • Length: 70 feet (21 m)
  • Launch/Recovery Method: Operate from conventional 150 ft (46 m) W X 6,000 ft (1,800 m) long paved runways (<4,200 ft takeoff and landing distance)

JCTD Program

The Global Observer Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) program has the goal of helping solve the capability gap in persistent ISR and communications relay for the US military and homeland security. The Global Observer JCTD is demonstrating a new stratospheric, extreme endurance UAS that can be transition for post-JCTD development, extended user evaluation, and fielding. This program is a joint program with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and AeroVironment that started in September 2007 and will culminate in a Joint Operational Utility Assessment (JOUA) in 2011.

The program provides for the system development, production of two aircraft, development flight testing, and JOUA with ISR and communications relay payload. The flight testing and JOUA will be conducted at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The primary objectives of the Global Observer JCTD Program are:

  • Develop enabling technologies for a liquid hydrogen powered Global Observer UAS.
  • Design, build, and demonstrate the Global Observer UAS for a 5 - 7 day endurance for 55,000 to 65,000 feet (17,000 to 20,000 m) altitude missions with 380-pound, 2.8 kW payload capacity. The system must be capable of being transported by a C-130 aircraft.
  • Integrate and assess military utility of modular Global Observer payloads to address user identified gaps in ISR and communications relay.
  • Evaluate system life cycle costs.

JCTD Sponsors

  • U.S. Department of Defense
  • United States Special Operations Command
  • United States Strategic Command
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • U.S. Air Force
  • U.S. Army
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Defense Threat Reductions Agency

Flight Test Partners

  • Air Force Flight Test Center
  • NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

Mission possibilities

High-altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, such as Global Observer, may enable several capabilities that enable rapid and effective actions or countermeasures:

  • Communications relay. Durable, satellite-like, affordable communications relay with substantial bandwidth capacity can interconnect and route data in real time, enabling teams and command centers separated by topographical barriers to communicate with each other.
  • Disaster response. Hurricane, storm tracking and general weather monitoring may be useful in evacuation planning, relief operations and first response coordination. Global Observer provides communication alternatives in the event of cell tower, microwave relay and satellite downlink failure.
  • Maritime surveillance. Coastlines plagued by transport of illegal goods can be subject to long-term surveillance. Analysts can observe suspicious activity, determine patterns of behavior and identify threats.


The underlying technologies have evolved over decades.

1977 Gossamer Condor: First human-powered airplane. Maximum efficiency in aeronautical and propulsion system design.

1981 Solar Challenger: First solar-powered piloted airplane to cross the English Channel (5+ hour flight). High efficiency energy generation and storage. (Smithsonian)

1993 Pathfinder: Solar-powered, high altitude UAS, reached 50,000 feet (15,000 m) in 1995.

2001 Helios: Solar-powered, high altitude UAS sets world altitude record for non-rocket-powered aircraft - 96,863 feet (29,524 m).

2002 Pathfinder Plus: First successful relay of high-quality television signals, third-generation cell phone transmissions and Internet linkage from the stratosphere. (Smithsonian)

2005 Global Observer “Odyssey Prototype”: First liquid hydrogen fueled UAS. 1/3 scale, powered by fuel cell system.

2007 Joint Capabilities Technologies Demonstration: AV awarded Global Observer Joint Capability Technology Demonstration program, opens development and production facility.

2009 Propulsion System: Global Observer propulsion system achieves multi-day operation in atmospheric chamber to simulate flight conditions.

2010 Ground & Taxi Testing: Global Observer aircraft successfully completes ground and taxi testing in preparation for first flight.

2010 Wing Load Testing: Global Observer successfully completes Wing Load Testing (WLT).

2010 First Flight: Global Observer successfully completes maiden flight.

Loss of funding

In December 2012, the Pentagon closed the development contract for the Global Observer, the reason being for the crash in April 2011. The Global Observer was used as a technology demonstration, not a program for a functioning aircraft. In April 2013, the Pentagon stated that no service or defense agency had advocated for it to be a program. AeroVironment is currently in possession of the second prototype Global Observer.[4]

Similar Aircraft

External links

  • Defense Industry Daily


  • Stratospheric Persistent UAS: Global Observer
  • Edwards Air Force Base photo of Global Observer HALE UAS
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