Print 42 comment(s) - last by danrien.. on Aug 29 at 2:28 PM

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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RE: One problem
By masher2 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 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 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 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.

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