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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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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.

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