Solar-powered plane completes 14-day unmanned flight

23 Jul 2010

A new Zephyr plane has broken aviation records and has future potential in the areas of surveillance and communications.

The UK-built solar-powered high-altitude long endurance unmanned air system (UAS) Zephyr landed earlier today after a two-week flight over the Arizona desert. The Zephyr set down at 15:04 Irish time, having been airborne for 14 days and 24 minutes.

Following its flight, the Zephyr has set some performance and altitude records, including achieving the longest ever duration for an unmanned flight.

An official from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the world air sports federation, was present at the landing of the Zephyr at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona today, where he was set to confirm a number of new world records.

These records will include:

– Quadrupling its own unofficial world record for longest duration unmanned flight (82 hours, 37 minutes set in 2008)

– Surpassing the current official world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system, which was set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4A Global Hawk in 2001

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

“Zephyr is the world’s first and only truly persistent aeroplane,” 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.”

Solar powered

Launched by hand, the Zephyr flew by day on solar power from its amorphous silicon solar arrays on the aircraft’s wings.

These solar arrays were also used to recharge the lithium-sulphur batteries that power the aircraft by night.

The Zephyr has a total wingspan of 22.5m to accommodate its batteries. And with a carbon-fibre design, the aircraft weighs in at just over 50Kg.

Chris Kelleher, QinetiQ’s chief designer, said: “We have designed, built and delivered what will be remembered as a milestone in aviation history. Zephyr will transform the delivery of current services such as communications, and lead to many new applications, which are not possible or affordable by other means.

Earlier this month, reported on the Solar Impulse solar-powered plane that made it safely through the night, manned by its pilot Andre Borschberg.



Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic