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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 JonnyDough on 8/26/2008 6:32:28 AM , Rating: 2
Despite your credentials I have to say a few things.

1. There are cameras specifically designed for aerial shots. These aren't digital cameras like you put in your wallet. They're mostly lens and a tiny sensor. You're more likely to see a lens like this at a major sports event than a birthday party. Therefore, unless you design aerial cameras it's hardly relevant as it depends on the weight of the lens more than anything. Recon can mean a wide variety of things, from low to the ground color photos to SR-71 blackbird altitudes (although this probably doesn't fly that high). If an ultra can fly above cloud cover it has all the solar power it needs. The best thing about that is that above the clouds there is less turbulence and solar has little need for oxygen. So efficiency goes way up at that alt.

2. There's no LCD screen, extra battery needed, or "power draw." The camera only draws power when the remote operator says to snap a photo, or when the on-board computer tells it to using programmed coordinates.

RE: One problem
By JonnyDough on 8/26/2008 6:37:33 AM , Rating: 1
Yes, I meant to say wallet. If you can put a wallet in a phone you can probably fit a camera in that phone too.

If I kept my wallet in my phone I'd keep my camera in my wallet. That way when I call Jason Mick's girlfriend and she comes over I can take that banana flavored condom out of my wallet and my camera will be right there too!

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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