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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: I see no greatness.
By taber on 8/25/2008 1:33:52 PM , Rating: 2
I agree this isn't earth shattering news, but I don't think that was the point of this article. While bringing these components together may not be the most difficult task, it's still not trivial. I'm not an aerospace engineer, but there does have to be some design that goes into figuring out the flight dynamics of the plane and maintaining durability for minimum weight.

Aircraft like these are more functional in equatorial regions too, where they can have maximum daylight. I imagine this aircraft would be useless in the upper northern and lower southern hemispheres with limited daylight hours.

I'm not sure all the parts will function great in the cold, but daylight would be better for about half the year at either extreme. I'm sure it'd work great for the days that the sun doesn't set at all. You're definitely a glass half empty kind of person.

RE: I see no greatness.
By YetAnotherOpinion on 8/25/2008 3:03:01 PM , Rating: 3
I'm not sure all the parts will function great in the cold, but daylight would be better for about half the year at either extreme. I'm sure it'd work great for the days that the sun doesn't set at all. You're definitely a glass half empty kind of person.

My point about the geographic location, is that this aircraft will be functional (year round) nearer the equator, because of the available light. Altitude will create cold conditions in any location. Although the north and south have seasons with lots of daylight, they also have seasons with little or no daylight. What good is a UAV that can't be used for 6 months of the year in a particular region?

The military will want equipment they can deploy anytime, anywhere. furthermore, they'll want equipment they won't need to ship to its destination. Instead, they will want to deploy them as and when needed, to any destination and to remain there for sustained periods.

A standoff surveillance/weapons system isn't much good if it can only be used effectively near the equator.

Glass half empty or not, this aircraft is a proof of concept project that although breaks a record, does not prove capability and so is not a solution to anything.

RE: I see no greatness.
By taber on 8/25/2008 6:54:41 PM , Rating: 2
Good point about temperature being irrelevant at high altitudes. However, I think a minimum of 6 months usefulness is still considerable and , as you said, that will increase the closer you get to the equator. Not to mention the test was done in Nevada, which is a little bit away from the equator.

It seems you're looking at this strictly from a military perspective. The article itself even mentions "UAVs being discussed as a possible means of massive climate data collection". It seems scientists are typically interested in the climates at the poles, I could see 6 months of deployment being very useful there.

I agree that the "weapons system" aspect of this you mention isn't viable in the near future, but it sounds like it's not far off being a low-end surveillance system in regions that can't threaten high flying aircraft. Also, it sounds to me like they wouldn't have to ship this anywhere if it could fly for days or potentially months, however the Predator (only UAV I could think of) only has a range of 454 miles:

Seems to me like they proved it can fly for 83 hours and 37 minutes.

RE: I see no greatness.
By Calin on 8/26/2008 6:38:00 AM , Rating: 2
" I'm sure it'd work great for the days that the sun doesn't set at all."

For your information, when the sun don't set, it doesn't rises much over horizon. For a hypothetical 80 degrees latitude, the sun will (at best) will move between touching horizon and some 24 degrees. There is very little power to be obtained flying level with the sun, as the most surface (wings) are not getting any light

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