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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 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.


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