QinetQ's Zephyr Captures Unmanned Flight Record

The solar powered aircraft soared 60,000 feet above the Sonoran Desert for more than 82 hours.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

August 25, 2008

2 Min Read

QinetiQ 's Zephyr Solar-Powered Aerial Vehicle (click for larger image)

A British company that consults with the U.S. Department of Defense said Sunday that it has set an unmanned flight record.

QinetiQ said its Zephyr, a solar-powered, high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle, flew for 82 hours and 37 minutes from the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

That exceeds Zephyr's previous record of 54 hours, which was set last year. The previous record for an unmanned flight was 30 hours and 24 minutes. A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk set that record in 2001.

"The Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona was an appropriate setting for Zephyr's world beating flight as many landmark aviation developments have taken place there in recent years," Simon Bennett, managing director of QinetiQ's Applied Technologies business, said in an announcement. "In addition to setting a new unofficial record, the trial is a step towards the delivery of Zephyr's capability for joint, real-time, battlefield persistent surveillance and communications to forces in the field at the earliest opportunity."

The U.S. Department of Defense funded the demonstration flight after cooperating with its counterpart in the United Kingdom to develop the Zephyr under their Joint Capability Technology Demonstration Programme. The program aims to deliver urgently needed technology to the U.S. military for combat, and the Zephyr flight marks the first time the U.S. and U.K. governments worked together on a joint demonstration of a high altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle, according to QinetiQ.

Zephyr is an ultra-lightweight, carbon-fiber aircraft, powered by amorphous silicon solar arrays thinner than paper. The arrays cover its wings and provide power during the day. Rechargeable lithium-sulphur batteries, from SION Power Inc, store the energy and power the aircraft at night.

Satellite communications and autopilot allowed the Zephyr to fly at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet above the Sonoran Desert -- where temperatures soared to 113°F -- from July 28 to July 31.

The trial allowed the military to assess U.S. government communications payload and the information gleaned could be applied to Earth observation and communications relay for military, security, and civilian purposes.

U.S. CENTCOM, which is responsible for command in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported the Zephyr, as did the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) for Advanced Systems and Concepts (AS&C) and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC).

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