Aurora Flight Sciences of Manassas, Virginia is developing a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for long flights at high altitudes. The Orion HALL (High Altitude, Long Loiter) UAV will be capable of remaining in the air for over 100 hours at a time at 65,000 feet and over 160 hours at a time at 45,000 feet. Unlike many other UAVs, it will be available for both military and civilian use.

At 57 feet long and 21 feet high with a 132 foot wing span, the Orion HALL is one of the larger UAVs around. It uses liquid hydrogen fuel and carries both infrared and electro-optical sensors that can be used for military surveillance as well as monitoring weather patterns or monitoring the effects of natural disasters and assisting in planning rescue and recovery efforts. According to the engineers, the UAV will also improve communications capabilities, making continuously operated communications systems a reality.

Because it can operate above normal air traffic, the Orion HALL does not interfere with other air operations and can maintain continuous operation on a single planned path without regard for other traffic. It also flies higher than most weather, keeping the craft safe even when monitoring the most extreme storms – this enables monitoring of wider areas than those possible to monitor by conventional means.

Another difference between Orion and many other UAVs is its reliance on off the shelf parts and components to improve reliability, lower costs, and increase maintainability. By limiting the new design and construction needs of the vehicle, Aurora hopes to make Orion affordable for research programs at government agencies and universities in addition to promoting the UAV for military and commercial uses.

Despite planned use in various environments and for a variety of purposes, the Orion HALL design and two demonstration vehicles are the result of a contract from the United States Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. The test vehicles have been under construction since 2006 with the help of strategic partner Boeing. The first flights are planned for later this year or early in 2010 once other tests necessary for certification are completed.

These tests are already underway; load tests on the wing were recently successfully completed at Aurora’s Columbus, Mississippi plant. The single wing uses a cantilevered beam design made of aluminum and composite materials and was shown to withstand more than 150 percent of the highest aerodynamic load the UAV is expected to endure over its lifetime.

TFOT has previously reported on a variety of other unmanned aerial vehicles including a new spy blimp designed by DARPA and the United States Air Force for extremely long duration missions, the Northrop Grumman X-47B stealth UAV modeled after a strike fighter, the L15 autonomous airship designed for longer missions at lower altitudes, and the SkyWatcher surveillance vehicle which can be operated either as a UAV or a manned airplane.

Read more about the Orion HALL UAV at its Aurora Flight Sciences product page and more about the recent load tests on the Orion wings in this press release.