hydrogen engine

From electric cars to military ops

February 17, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

General Motors pulled the plug on its first electric car, but supplier AeroVironment used some of that experience to build a very different kind of vehicle for the U.S. military.

By Doron Levin, contributor

AeroVironment, a firm based in Monrovia, Calif., whose products include gear for electric, hydrogen, and hybrid cars, is applying its environmentally friendly research to a technology that at first blush might make some tree huggers tremble: a military drone that could be used to assist in battle.

In January one of the company's pilotless aircraft, powered by a hydrogen hybrid engine that can keep it aloft for up to a week, took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California for its second test flight. (The drone, dubbed the Global Observer, isn't particularly fearsome: It is meant for surveillance and communications.) AeroVironment hopes the U.S. will like the equipment enough to deploy it and order more.

Much of AeroVironment's eclectic portfolio traces its lineage to 30-year-old experiments by the company's founder, the late Paul MacReady. MacReady's Gossamer Condor was the first human-powered aircraft to achieve sustained flight. (It hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.) He went on to develop a solar-powered version of the Condor, which led to a number of so-called clean-tech projects, including the design for the prototype of General Motors' (GM) now defunct electric car, the EV1. More

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