Solar powered aircraft breaks number of world records as it prepares to land after two weeks in the air

23. July 2010 | Markets & Trends, Research & Development | By:  Becky Stuart

QinetiQ will today bring Zephyr, its solar powered high-altitude long endurance (HALE) Unmanned Air System (UAS) back to earth after two weeks in the air. Celebrating, the company says it has smashed a number of long-standing official and unofficial world records.

The Zephy solar powered plane preparing for take off on July 9, 2010

The solar powered aircraft has broken a number of records. Image: QinetiQ.

Zephyr was launched on July 9 and is currently still flying above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Today marks the time where it will have been aloft for 14 nights continuously, thus achieving the objective of the trial and setting a number of performance and altitude records.

In a statement, it was said: “An official from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the world air sports federation, has been monitoring progress at the Yuma Proving Ground and when Zephyr is back on the ground, he looks set to be able to confirm a number of new world records. This includes quadrupling its own unofficial world record for longest duration unmanned flight (82 hours, 37 minutes set in 2008) and surpassing the current official world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system (set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk on March 22, 2001).

"Zephyr will also have flown longer, non-stop and without refueling, than any other airplane - having significantly passed the Rutan Voyager milestone of nine days (216 hours) three minutes and 44 seconds airborne, set in December 1986.”

Launched by hand, the aircraft flies by day on solar power delivered by amorphous silicon solar arrays, supplied by Uni-Solar, no thicker than sheets of paper that cover the aircraft's wings. These are also used to recharge the lithium-sulphur batteries, supplied by Sion Power Inc., which are used to power the aircraft by night. Together they provide an “extremely high” power to weight ratio on a continuous day/night cycle, thereby delivering persistent on station capabilities.

Around 50 percent larger than the previous version, Zephyr incorporates an entirely new wing design with a total wingspan of 22.5 meters to accommodate more batteries that are combined with a new integrated power management system. The new aerodynamic shape also helps to reduce drag and improve performance. Zephyr's ultra-lightweight carbon fiber design means it weighs in at just over 50Kg.

"Zephyr is the world's first and only truly persistent airplane," said Neville Salkeld, MD of QinetiQ's UK Technology Solutions Group. "We are really proud of the team's achievement which has been supported by expertise from across the QinetiQ business and beyond. We've now proved that this amazing aircraft is capable of providing a cost effective, persistent surveillance and communications capability measured in terms of weeks, if not months. Not only is Zephyr game-changing technology, it is also significantly more cost effective to manufacture and deploy than traditional aircraft and satellites."


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