Solar-Powered Plane Sets New Record

The new record may be unofficial but it is definitely legitimate: a British-built spy plane has set a new precedent for the longest continuous unmanned flight when it stayed aloft for 82 hours and 37 minutes. In doing so it crushed the old record of 30 hours and 24 minutes. The old record remains the official current world record for unmanned flight and was set by Global Hawk in 2001.

This is not the first time the aircraft, a Zephyr, has managed to unofficially break the record. In 2007 the Zephyr managed to stay aloft for a total of 54 hours. The record-breaking journeys across the sky are not official simply because the company who created the aircraft, QinetiQ, did not set about fulfilling the necessary criteria that were needed to make it official. The company says that the reason for this is that they were more focused in demonstrating the technology to their customer than they were about the record status. They used a combination of solar panels and a rechargeable battery to keep the aircraft aloft for the three-and-a-half day flight.

The Zephyr is a high-altitude long-endurance UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). It is launched by hand and is comprised of an ultra-lightweight carbon-fiber aircraft that is controlled by the autopilot. The aircraft uses amorphous silicon solar panels as thin as a sheet of paper to power the aircraft during the day. These panels cover the aircraft’s wings. When the sun goes down and the night sky blankets the earth, the aircraft switches to rechargeable lithium-sulphur batteries. These are then recharged during the day when the solar power panels are reactivated, enabling what could potentially be uninterrupted flight.

According to QinetiQ, the test flight took place at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground. The flight trial took place in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona from July 28 to 31, where temperatures soared to as high as 45 °C (113 °F). During that time the Zephyr reached a maximum altitude of over 60 000 ft and was piloted by both autopilot and satellite communications. According to aircraft’s designers at QinetiQ in the UK, the aircraft could fly indefinitely. They say that the aircraft will be capable of weeks or months of flight in the near future. Clearly QinetiQ are close to perfecting their technology and making long-duration, un-manned flight a reality.