This certainly is an interesting time for solar powered flight. Solar Impulse just returned from a 26-hour manned test flight, and now QinetiQ's Zephyr, a drone who we last saw clocking over 83 hours in-flight is in the air again: this time, it's more like seven days and counting! The craft, which took off from the Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona last Friday, is being billed as an "eternal aircraft," one that can stay aloft for extremely long periods of time for use as recon and communications platforms. The previous world endurance record for a UAV was set by NASA's Global Hawk, which stayed aloft for 30 hours and 24 minutes.
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QinetiQ's Zephyr solar powered unmanned aircraft soars to new world records

Zephyr soars to new world records


QinetiQ today (14:40 UK time on Friday 16 July) announced that Zephyr, the leading solar powered high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) Unmanned Air System (UAS) has been flying for the past week, smashing a number of long-standing world records.

Currently flying high above the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, Zephyr has already passed the seven day / 168 hour mark and the clock is still running. This DOUBLES the unofficial world record for longest duration unmanned flight of 82 hours, 37 minutes set in 2008 and already held by Zephyr, and is well in excess of the current official world record of 30 hours 24 minutes set by Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk on 22 March 2001.

As a bold statement of intent QinetiQ invited the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the world air sports federation, to oversee the flight and an FAI Official has been monitoring progress at the Yuma Proving Ground. Zephyr's world records will not become official until the aircraft is safely back on the ground.

The current goal is to fly for a further week and prove Zephyr is the world's first truly eternal plane, capable of providing a low-cost, persistent surveillance capability over months rather than days. Potential applications include earth observation and communications relay in support of a range of defence, security and commercial requirements.

The current Zephyr aircraft is a genuine breakthrough design, drawing on the latest technology and represents a massive leap forward in engineering excellence incorporating an entirely new wing design.

"The team has worked tirelessly over the past few years, making truly significant leaps forward in overall design and construction - and to see it successfully soar into the sky was fantastic," explained Jon Saltmarsh, Zephyr Programme Director. "By being able to remain over a location for weeks or months at a time, it can usefully deliver a host of practical and more affordable solutions to both civil and military customers."

Launched by hand, the aircraft flies by day on solar power delivered by amorphous silicon solar arrays 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% larger than the previous Zephyr, technical changes now mean it has a 22.5m wingspan to accommodate more batteries that are combined with a totally new integrated power management system. The entirely new aerodynamic shape and high "T" tail also contribute to reduce drag and improve performance. The payload capacity will meet a number of key surveillance and communication requirements already demonstrated by Zephyr over the past three years. Zephyr's ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre design also means it weighs in at just over 50Kg.

Unlike conventional manned or unmanned aircraft now being operated, Zephyr does not need to return to base at regular intervals for re-fuelling or servicing which also helps minimise the logistical supply chain and extend its operational capability.

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Zephyr solar UAV sets yet another flight record: 7 days and counting!