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Eye in the Sky: Pentagon Tests New Spy Plane

Photo Courtesy - AeroVironment, Inc.(EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.) -- High over the Mojave desert, the Pentagon has been quietly testing a new unmanned plane that flies higher, soars longer and runs greener than anything in the Pentagon's arsenal.

The Global Observer, made by Monrovia, California-based AeroVironment Inc., is bigger than a 767 and flies in the stratosphere up to 65,000 feet, twice as high as Mount Everest -- out of sight and out of range of most anti-aircraft missiles.  From there it will be able to see 600 miles in every direction, enough to survey the entire country of Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, the manufacturer gave ABC News an exclusive look, including video of the first test of the plane, which is powered entirely by liquid hydrogen fuel -- light enough to power the drone for a week at a time, far longer than anything in use today.

"It uses hydrogen for fuel, which has three times the energy density of gasoline, which enables it to fly much longer and at much lower costs and -- oh, by the way, has zero emissions," AeroVironment CEO Tim Conver told ABC News in an interview at the plane's hangar at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  The plane emits only water vapor.

The aircraft weighs about as much as a large SUV, but in order for it to fly so high for so long, the wing span has to be enormous -- about half the length of a football field.  That way, even when you can't see it, it can see you.

The new drone does the work of a satellite for just tens of millions of dollars -- some analysts say it would cost about $30 million -- compared with hundreds of millions to $1 billion for a satellite.  Unlike satellites, it can be aloft within hours and has the ability to instantly reposition.

The plane circles above a target for a week at a time.  In addition to on-board cameras that offer an unblinking eye, communications equipment offers cell phone, TV and broadband Internet for the same area.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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