Solar Plane Doubles World Record, Inches Tech Closer To Deployment
August 25, 2008 4:30 AM
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The Zephyr is very large, but ultralight and launchable by hand.
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.
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
'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.
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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Too early to claim success
8/25/2008 9:33:21 AM
My concerns regarding QinetiQ's design are two-fold. First, as was stated earlier, payload considerations are non-existent in the current design but this may be accepted as on-the-way in later production models once flight duration is no longer a problem. My second concern is, however, much more difficult to discount -- durability. Can this UAV handle rough weather or even an occasional gust and what sort of performance penalty will it suffer to address that concern?
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