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The Zephyr is very large, but ultralight and launchable by hand.  (Source: QinetiQ)

The Zephyr flies proud as the current unofficial world record holder for solar powered flight. The craft could provide a big boost to the UAV industry.  (Source: QinetiQ)
New design could be a boon to the reconnaissance, small plane industry

As the Olympics close, a dizzying couple weeks of record breaking have come to an end.  In total 43 world records were smashed.  In this spirit aerospace startup QinitiQ announced an important record of its own in the field of alternative energy.

In Phelpsian fashion, QinetiQ's Zephyr Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) obliterated the previous world record for continuous solar flight, though some technical disputes may hold off its place in the records books for a short time. 

According to QinetiQ, the Zephyr flew for 83 hours and 37 minutes, more than twice the longest flight time of Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk, holder of the current record.  The two craft are radically different.  The Global Hawk is almost the size of a fighter and requires a full runway to launch.  The Zephyr is much more petite and can be launched by hand.

The Zephyr features an ultra-lightweight carbon fiber skeleton, weighing less than 70 lb.  Its 18m wingspan is paper thin and plastered with amorphous silicon solar cells made by United Solar Ovonic in Michigan.  The cells pump power by day to the engines and to Sion Power lithium sulfur batteries to store power to continue flight at night.  The craft also features a specially designed charging mechanism, and highly refined autopilot software, according to QinetiQ.

Paul Davey, Development Director for the Zephyr UAV, stated of the flight, "At present long endurance is measured in terms of hours. Ultimately we are thinking in terms of months. The current development programme has the potential to extend Zephyr’s mission endurance to around three months, which could force a wholesale change to the way in which the industry thinks about UAV operations."

Unfortunately QinetiQ's celebrations may be put on hold.  The World Air Sports Federation--the governing body for air sports and aeronautical world records said QinetiQ's flight times failed to meet certain criteria it holds.  Thus the Northrup Grumman record may live to see another day.  This is not the first time that QinetiQ has had such difficulties -- last year it completed a highly publicized 54-hr. trek, which would have set the record, only to be disqualified for similar timing violations.

Nonetheless, with UAV military applications booming and UAVs being discussed as a possible means of massive climate data collection, QinetiQ seems poised to capitalize on its success.  And with designs like that of Northrup Grumman showing that full size solar aircraft are possible, it seems possible that a solar-powered composite ultra-small manned plane might even be viable in coming years. 

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One problem
By FITCamaro on 8/25/2008 9:05:53 AM , Rating: -1
This thing is paper thin. And extremely light. So for any kind of practical surveillance use, where are you going to put the camera and its batteries? I doubt there's enough reserve power on this thing to power the camera. Plus that's going to add weight.

Until we can get solar cells that can power an unmanned aircraft of suitable size and weight, both in day and night, and still carry equipment, I don't see them making it to the front line.

RE: One problem
By JasonMick (blog) on 8/25/2008 9:16:14 AM , Rating: 2
The cells pump power by day to the engines and to Sion Power lithium sulfur batteries to store power to continue flight at night.

It already has batteries onboard. I don't know how much they weigh but I'm guessing the weight of a camera compared to the batteries or the 70 lb frame is going to be relatively trivial. Similarly, the power draw from a camera/wireless transmitter is likely trivial compared to an engine's draw.

The main thing holding this aircraft back is cost, but with the healthy funding flowing around the UAV industry currently, even this may be little problem.

RE: One problem
By marvdmartian on 8/25/2008 9:35:12 AM , Rating: 2
Your points are valid, to anyone existing in the "real world".

However, if this is to be used as a government surveillance aircraft, you just know that they'll want to add 500 pounds of equipment (and redundant systems) onto the aircraft, which makes the OP's point more relevant, doesn't it? ;)

RE: One problem
By masher2 (blog) on 8/25/2008 9:55:16 AM , Rating: 4
> "The main thing holding this aircraft back is cost"

A UAV able to stay on-station semi-permanently would be worth its weight in gold. This tech isn't being held back by cost; it's simply not yet viable. Once you add any weight to the craft for anything besides solar cells and required structural components, it becomes far too heavy to maintain flight.

RE: One problem
By isorfir on 8/25/2008 10:00:54 AM , Rating: 4
A UAV able to stay on-station semi-permanently would worth its weight in gold

I thought this was "ultra-lightweight"

RE: One problem
By masher2 (blog) on 8/25/2008 10:55:25 AM , Rating: 3
Worth its weight in rhodium then.

RE: One problem
By PitViper007 on 8/26/2008 4:44:59 PM , Rating: 3
I dunno, I'd take 70lbs of gold...

RE: One problem
By JasonMick (blog) on 8/25/2008 11:06:34 AM , Rating: 2
QinitiQ claims it is capable of carrying a variety of light payloads.


RE: One problem
By masher2 (blog) on 8/25/2008 11:30:21 AM , Rating: 3
Interesting. Of course, that brochure claims it can stay aloft for "months at a time", when according to this article, their record is 83 hours.

Still, they've definitely made progress and I'm sure we'll see such UAVs in the near future, regardless of cost. At a guess, the limiting factor now probably isn't solar cell efficiency in any case, but battery enegrgy density/kg.

RE: One problem
By danrien on 8/29/2008 2:28:35 PM , Rating: 2
I don't know how much they weigh but I'm guessing the weight of a camera compared to the batteries or the 70 lb frame is going to be relatively trivial

I'm guessing that rebukes your argument of weight. For a light camera, weight would be trivial. So, for surveillance, this is a perfect solution: sustained flight, doesn't have to necessarily worry about clouds (for a while), etc., where as a satellite hates cloud cover and needs to wait to get into position over the Earth. This bad boy, take him out and throw him up in the air, and he's ready to take some pictures.

For any sort of munitions payload, yes, the added weight would be too much to sustain flight for very long, not even taking into account the (rather small) amount of lift the solar wings are able to generate, which would most likely ground the plane for large payloads immediately.

RE: One problem
By s12033722 on 8/25/2008 12:32:38 PM , Rating: 2
As a designer of digital cameras, a typical daylight-only camera would weigh about 1 lb and have a power draw of 7-10 watts. Low-light capable cameras would typically bump that to 2 lbs and 20-30 watts depending on framerate.

The optics package might add some significant weight to that, though....

RE: One problem
By FITCamaro on 8/25/2008 1:39:12 PM , Rating: 1
You also have to add weight for equipment that allows the Air Force or Army to retask the UAV. To control the UAV via satellite. Full motion video of what the UAV is currently seeing. A storage system for the video (at least a month's worth if they achieve what they want).

RE: One problem
By ZmaxDP on 8/25/2008 4:08:30 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, No. Well...

To control the UAV via satellite. - Yes

Full motion video of what the UAV is currently seeing. - Yesish. Define "full motion" in terms of fps. They don't need 30fps.

A storage system for the video (at least a month's worth if they achieve what they want). - No way. First, they don't want storage on these things because the Video is typically sensitive info. If it crashes, they don't want the data on board. Second, what good is the intel if it a month late when it lands?

No, what they want is sufficient power and weight for the remote sensing instruments, command and control circuitry, and a live satellite up link. Depending on power requirements, they may choose to do a hybrid system with a limited storage capacity (flash or volatile) and a burst uplink every few minutes or on demand (trigger events). This keeps the data traffic down and the storage liability and weight low.

RE: One problem
By Xerstead on 8/26/2008 2:47:46 PM , Rating: 2
If it is able to fly all night on the batteries it should be able to make a 3 hour round trip, with camera, running on solar and the batteries. It could be launched and flown over hostile teritory eg. the other side of a hill/river and back again giving the troops an idea of what they are dealing with. The extreeme endurance aspect wouldn't be an issue.

RE: One problem
By Zoomer on 8/26/2008 9:52:08 PM , Rating: 2
Existing UAVs already do this, and they can stay on station longer.

RE: One problem
By JonnyDough on 8/26/2008 6:32:28 AM , Rating: 2
Despite your credentials I have to say a few things.

1. There are cameras specifically designed for aerial shots. These aren't digital cameras like you put in your wallet. They're mostly lens and a tiny sensor. You're more likely to see a lens like this at a major sports event than a birthday party. Therefore, unless you design aerial cameras it's hardly relevant as it depends on the weight of the lens more than anything. Recon can mean a wide variety of things, from low to the ground color photos to SR-71 blackbird altitudes (although this probably doesn't fly that high). If an ultra can fly above cloud cover it has all the solar power it needs. The best thing about that is that above the clouds there is less turbulence and solar has little need for oxygen. So efficiency goes way up at that alt.

2. There's no LCD screen, extra battery needed, or "power draw." The camera only draws power when the remote operator says to snap a photo, or when the on-board computer tells it to using programmed coordinates.

RE: One problem
By JonnyDough on 8/26/2008 6:37:33 AM , Rating: 1
Yes, I meant to say wallet. If you can put a wallet in a phone you can probably fit a camera in that phone too.

If I kept my wallet in my phone I'd keep my camera in my wallet. That way when I call Jason Mick's girlfriend and she comes over I can take that banana flavored condom out of my wallet and my camera will be right there too!

RE: One problem
By NYBandits on 8/25/2008 9:29:13 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know if the Global Hawk had any sensors or comms equipment on board, but it is certainly large enough to carry significant amounts of C4ISR equipment.

Whether it's solar cells can provide enough power for those systems is another story. But even if they can't completely power all the systems, they can augment the performance and increase the duration of its mission

RE: One problem
By Alpha4 on 8/25/2008 1:03:47 PM , Rating: 2
...but it is certainly large enough to carry significant amounts of C4...
...ISR equipment.

RE: One problem
By FITCamaro on 8/25/2008 1:32:42 PM , Rating: 2
they can augment the performance and increase the duration of its mission

The idea is to have its mission be never ending.

RE: One problem
By jma00a1 on 8/25/2008 10:20:26 AM , Rating: 2
I would love to see how it stood up to the weather. To stay in the air over desert conditions for 83 hours is one thing.
I'm sure the aerodynamics would change quite a bit in a 60 knot headwind with heavy rain.

RE: One problem
By YetAnotherOpinion on 8/25/2008 10:53:53 AM , Rating: 2
They fly above weather. It's a necessary function to both avoid weather problems and to capture sunlight (without cloud obstructions).

RE: One problem
By Jim28 on 8/25/2008 9:10:31 PM , Rating: 2
Great how can they see through the clouds then?

IR and RADAR work but not Visible light, and Radar would take more power than this thing has.
IR equipment does not have a comparable resolution of visible light gear at this point.

RE: One problem
By 9nails on 8/25/2008 10:45:59 AM , Rating: 2
I believe that this concept wasn't to prove lifting power but sustained flight.

As you suggest, this is just a small aircraft. But typically, that's how they're tested. The process would have a small concept aircraft being designed on a computer, then a scale model tested in wind tunnel. And finally a scale model tested in flight. Who knows what lifting power a full sized version of this has. I would agree that the bulk of it's components would need to be moved off of the aircraft and likely relayed through satellite. I know LiPo batteries have a significant weight to power ratios with new batteries being designed all the time, and that lenses are begin made thinner and thinner. I see a fairly good potential that this proof of concept could fly for much long times. (Is the word "indefinitely" using too much flattery?)

RE: One problem
By tomatom on 8/25/2008 12:42:41 PM , Rating: 2
~~ You're all missing it !

The underlying problem is a needed breakthru in " TALL LADDER TECHNOLOGY "

< that & training small monkeys to change batteries and squigee-wash-clean the solar
panels > ,,,low-cost monkey chow too,,,

RE: One problem
By FITCamaro on 8/25/2008 2:59:14 PM , Rating: 2
A UAV is supposed to be small. This is the full sized model. Some UAVs the military uses can be launched by hand. Others have a launching mechanism. Those that carry weapons payloads take off by runway. Something solar powered definitely won't be able to live bombs or missiles. So its regulated to a surveillance role. And those are the type that typically are launched by hand.

So its not going to get much, if at all, bigger. Granted the military could request they build a larger variant. But with solar power adding size adds weight, and adding weight means more power is needed. Also with more weight larger motors are needed which means even more weight. And weight builds faster than the energy solar cells provide.

RE: One problem
By FITCamaro on 8/25/2008 3:01:58 PM , Rating: 2
Let me also add that this thing is huge for a surveillance drone that won't be able to carry a lot of gear much less power it.

RE: One problem
By The Irish Patient on 8/25/2008 5:21:46 PM , Rating: 1
This would make a good platform for passive radar. Paper thin is OK, and the amount of power required is only as much as the onboard CPUs need to compress and encrypt the data. The heavy number crunching can be done on the ground. Use three or four as one large virtual array and the resolution might be very good. To my knowledge (which is admittedly not saying very much), no major technological breakthroughs are required.

RE: One problem
By mindless1 on 8/28/2008 9:29:28 AM , Rating: 1
One thing at a time. They're demonstrating technology, probably looking for investors as well. Baby steps eventually go somewhere.

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