Boeing gets the picture

  • 15-Mar-2010 08:54 EDT

Boeing says its new camera combines cutting-edge sensor technology with its advanced pointing and tracking solutions and real-time processing for highly integrated 3-D imaging payloads.

Boeing Directed Energy Systems and wholly owned Boeing subsidiary Spectrolab have jointly developed a compact, energy-efficient camera that provides 3-D images for military and commercial applications.

Stressing that it used its own research and development funding, Boeing has had the camera under test for the past two years by attaching it to mobile ground platforms and an AH-6 Little Bird helicopter. Equipped with advanced sensors that were developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory and transferred to Boeing under a teaming arrangement, the cube-shaped camera is one-third the size and uses one-tenth the power of most comparable 3-D imaging cameras.

Those design and power characteristics will allow the camera to be deployed on a wide range of platforms, "including unmanned aerial and ground vehicles that don't have much room or power to spare," said Nasser Karam, Vice President of Advanced Technology Products at Spectrolab.

To create a 3-D image, the camera fires a short pulse of laser light and then measures the pulse's flight time to determine how far away each part of the camera's field of view is.

"The camera combines cutting-edge sensor technology with Boeing's advanced pointing and tracking solutions and real-time processing [for] highly integrated 3-D imaging payloads," said Joseph Paranto, Growth Lead for Directed Energy Systems in Albuquerque.

The camera can be customized depending on customers' ground, airborne, or space-based applications. It has a variety of potential uses, including mapping terrain, tracking targets, and seeing through foliage.

Boeing is currently integrating the camera into compact 3-D imaging payloads on unmanned aerial vehicles and will be testing that capability this spring. The team will also add 3-D video capability to the camera soon to complement its existing still-image capability.

One particular aircraft that the camera may or may not find a home on is Boeing's Phantom Eye, what it describes as its first unmanned, liquid-hydrogen-powered, high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) demonstrator aircraft, which is now under construction.

According to Darryl Davis, Boeing Phantom Works President, “After five years of technology development, we are now deploying rapid prototyping to bring together an unmanned aerial vehicle with a breakthrough liquid-hydrogen propulsion system that will be ready to fly early next year.”

Phantom Eye’s entire propulsion system—including the engine, turbochargers, and engine control system—successfully completed an 80-h test in an altitude chamber on March 1, clearing the way for the propulsion system and UAV to be assembled.

The twin-engine Phantom Eye demonstrator will have a 150-ft wingspan and be capable of flying for more than four days at altitudes up to 65,000 ft while carrying a payload of up to 450 lb.

Phantom Eye is designed to maintain a persistent presence in the stratosphere over a specific area, while performing missions that could include intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance,and communication.

Boeing is also developing a larger HALE, Phantom Ray, that will stay aloft for more than 10 days and carry payloads of more than 2000 lb. It is a fighter-sized UAV that will be a flying test bed for advanced technologies.

“We believe Phantom Eye and Phantom Ray represent two areas where the unmanned aerial vehicle market is heading, and rapid prototyping is the key to getting us there,” said Dave Koopersmith, Advanced Boeing Military Aircraft Vice President. “These demonstrators reduce technology risks and set the stage for meeting both military and commercial customers’ future needs.”

Phantom Eye evolved from Boeing’s piston-powered Condor that set several records for altitude and endurance in the late 1980s. Boeing, as the Phantom Eye system designer, is working closely with Ball Aerospace, Aurora Flight Sciences, Ford Motor Co., and Mahle Powertrain to develop the demonstrator.

Phantom Ray evolved from the X-45C program. It is scheduled to make its first flight in December.

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