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Zephyr Solar Plane Flies Unmanned for Two Weeks

Credits: ©2010 QinetiQ

Friday, 23 July, 2010 - The "Zephyr" solar-powered unmanned plane, which was airborne continuously for two weeks above the Arizona desert, made a successful landing to break several aviation records. The Zephyr set down at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona at 15:04 (UK time), having been airborne for no less than 14 days and 24 minutes. The Zephyr beat the official world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system; that record was set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk in 2001. Zephyr will have flown longer, non-stop and without refueling, than any other airplane – having also passed the Rutan Voyager's milestone of nine days (216 hours) 3 minutes and 44 seconds airborne set in December 1986.


Zephyr Solar Aircraft

Zephyr, QinetiQ’s solar-powered, high-altitude long-endurance (HALE), Unmanned Air System (UAS) is setting a landmark unmanned flight duration record (as of 19 July 2010). ©2010 GizMag

by John Collins Rudolf, New York Times - For more than a week, the Zephyr, a solar-powered drone, has been circling high above the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. QinetiQ, a British defense technology company, developed the craft, which could have broad military and commercial surveillance applications. “The plan is for it to stay airborne until this Friday, 23 June 2010,” said Douglas Millard, a QinetiQ spokesman. “At that point it will have been in the air for two weeks.” If the Zephyr can safely return to Earth at that point, it will have smashed the official world record for continuous unmanned flight, now held by Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk drone. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a governing body for aeronautic world records, is observing the flight.

The goal for the project has been to establish the Zephyr as the “world’s first truly eternal plane,” with future designs of the drone expected to provide “low-cost, persistent surveillance capability over months rather than days,” a company statement said. Both the British Defense Ministry and the Pentagon are involved with the development of the drone.

With a 74-foot wingspan, the craft weighs just 110 pounds and is launched by hand. Its lithium-sulfur batteries, supplied by Sion Power, are powered by paper-thin sheets of silicon solar arrays. With a high power-to-weight ratio, the aircraft has already demonstrated a payload capacity able to meet surveillance and communication needs, a QinetiQ statement said.

QinetiQ and its subsidiaries are leading developers of militarized robots, including the Talon robot, which is used for roadside bomb disposal in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Maars robot, one of the first robots designed to have lethal capabilities on the battlefield.

The following article is from GizMag, by Mike Hanlon, July 2010
QinetiQ’s Zephyr Solar Powered Unmanned Aircraft Demonstrates Perpetual Flight
Zephyr, QinetiQ’s solar-powered, high-altitude long-endurance (HALE), Unmanned Air System (UAS) is currently in the air and setting a landmark unmanned flight duration record by demonstrating what is essentially perpetual flight. The official world record for the longest unmanned flight is 30 hours 24 minutes set by Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk in 2001. A previous smaller relative of the current Zephyr holds the unofficial record of 82 hours but this time QinetiQ has FIA officials on hand and has been flying the new 22.5m wingspan plane for the past week, and is closing on the 200 hour mark with another week (168 hours) planned. It needs to land safely to claim the record, but the feat has already demonstrated that the era of low-cost, persistent aerial surveillance has begun.

Zephyr is currently (June 2010) flying high above the clouds over the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, on the way to becoming the world's first truly eternal plane.

The benefits of such capability are many, with the most obvious being persistent surveillance over months rather than days. Some other logical 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 percent 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.

The QinetiQ Zephyr will be show-cased at the 2010 Farnborough International Airshow.

Relevant books:
More with Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight
Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


  Zephyr Solar Aircraft Brochure (1,768 kb)