July 14, 2010

Solar Plane Set For Record Flight Attempt

The manufacturers of an unmanned solar-powered aircraft are preparing the plane to fly non-stop for two full weeks, according to a BBC News report on Wednesday.

The Zephyr solar plane, which was conceived and constructed by a British defense firm known as QinetiQ, will be launching from the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground base, located in Arizona.

The Zephyr has already flown unofficially for more than 82 continuous hours. However, as previous flights were not witnessed by officials at the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), this will be its first official attempt at the endurance record of 30 hours, 24 minutes, currently held by the American-built Global Hawk.

According to Jonathan Amos of the BBC, "The latest version of Zephyr is now 50% bigger than its predecessors"¦ The updated vehicle has a wingspan of 22.5m, and features a new wingtip and tail design that dramatically improve aero performance."

"It also has a wider configuration near the main body to accommodate more equipment," adds Amos. "In addition, the team has upgraded the avionics and power management systems on board."

"We now have an aircraft that we believe is capable of actually fulfilling missions for the military or the civil user," Zephyr project manager John Saltmarsh told BBC News on Wednesday. "We would offer it as a service. We would provide a 'hook in the sky' that you could put a payload on to, and we will guarantee to keep it up there 24 hours a day for a couple of months."

The roughly 110-pound Zephyr will be hand-launched by five individuals, and is expected to climb to a height of approximately 40,000 feet by the end of its first day. QinetiQ officials hope that it will be able to maintain a height of 60,000 feet during the day and 40,000 feet at night from the second day onward.

According to Amos, "During the day, Zephyr uses its state-of-the-art solar cells spread across its wings to recharge high-power lithium-sulphur batteries and drive two propellers. At night, the energy stored in the batteries is sufficient to maintain Zephyr in the sky."

The unmanned plane the Zephyr will look to dethrone the Global Hawk, which is a remotely-piloted aircraft that is currently used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force as a surveillance craft. It costs approximately $123 million to develop and build, and it is similar in design to the old Lockheed U-2 spy plane.

The Global Hawk can reportedly cover up to 400,000 square miles of terrain each day. It set the world unmanned flight endurance record in March 2001, while also establishing a new absolute altitude mark with a then-record height of 65,380-plus feet.

At QinetiQ's official Zephyr website, quotes attributed to Development Director Paul Davey discuss the long-term goals for the project. According to Davey, "At present long endurance is measured in terms of hours. Ultimately we are thinking in terms of months. The current development program 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."


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