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Zephyr Solar Powered Plane Sets Endurance Record

July 17, 2010

The Zephyr solar-powered plane recently broke the endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The aircraft took off from the U.S. Army’s Yuma Providing Ground in Arizona last Friday and is still in the air.

Its non-stop operation has gone five times longer than the official mark recognized by the world air sports federation.

The defense and research company Qinetiq has developed the UK-built Zephyr.

Jon Saltmarsh, its project manager, told BBC news that Zephyr would be brought down once it had flown non-stop for a fortnight.

“Zephyr is basically the first ‘eternal aircraft’,” he said.

The UAV has been under development for years at Qinetiq.

Solar-powered high-altitude long-endurance UAVs are expected to have a wide range of applications in the future.

The military plans to use the aircrafts as reconnaissance and communications platforms.  Civilian and scientific programs will equip them with small payloads for Earth observation duties.

Their solar cells drive propellers during the day and use up their batteries to maintain the craft through dark hours of the night.  An autopilot feature helps to keep the craft circling over the same spot.

The Zephyr is now 50 percent bigger than earlier versions of the solar-powered aircraft.

The new vehicle has a wingspan of 73 feet and features a new wingtip and tail design that dramatically improves aerodynamic performance.

The Zephyr has a wider configuration than previous models in order to accommodate more equipment.  The team also upgraded the avionics and power management systems on board.

“The launch was absolutely beautiful; it was just so smooth,” Saltmarsh told BBC. “We had five people lift it above their heads, start running and it just lifted away into the sky.”

U.S. robot Global Hawk set the old world endurance record for a UAV staying afloat for 30 hours and 24 minutes.  Zephyr has already recorded an 83-hour continuous flight, but representatives from the Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) were not present to witness the proceedings.

However, they are at Yuma so the latest flight will go down as an official world record provided the FAI is satisfied its rules have been followed.

“This is a huge milestone that puts us at the leading edge,” Saltmarsh told BBC News. “It’s a practical system that can actually be used rather than simply a demonstration of small technical achievements.”

The aircraft’s flight is the second event of note this year in solar-powered aviation.  Andre Borschberg became the first person to pilot a manned solar powered plane through the night last month.

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