14 days and 21 minutes – that is a long time for any flying device to stay in the air aloft without landing to refuel. That is what looks to have happened though with the Zephyr, an unmanned aircraft which has been buzzing around the skies of Arizona day and night via the power of solar energy.
The Zephyr, developed by technology-based services and solutions to the defense, security and related markets provider QinetiQ, stayed aloft during daylight hours via “solar power delivered by amorphous silicon solar arrays, supplied by Uni-Solar.” These solar panels, no thicker than sheets of paper and covering the aircraft’s wings, also charged for nighttime flying hours lithium-sulphur batteries, supplied by Sion Power Inc. These two energy sources were said to provide “an extremely high power to weight ratio on a continuous day/night cycle, thereby delivering persistent on station capabilities.”
The Zephyr, which is envisioned for use in defense and commercial applications, is believed to have set some world records. These include its own unofficial world record for longest duration unmanned flight (82 hours, 37 minutes set in 2008) and surpassing the current official world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system (set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4A Global Hawk on 22 March 2001). Zephyr will also have flown longer, non-stop and without refueling, than any other airplane – having significantly passed the Rutan Voyager milestone of 9 days (216hours) 3 minutes and 44 seconds airborne, set in December 1986.
“Zephyr is the world’s first and only truly persistent aeroplane,” said Neville Salkeld, MD of QinetiQ’s UK Technology Solutions Group, in a statement. “We are really proud of the team’s achievement which has been supported by expertise from across the QinetiQ business and beyond. We’ve now proved that this amazing aircraft is capable of providing a cost effective, persistent surveillance and communications capability measured in terms of weeks, if not months. Not only is Zephyr game-changing technology, it is also significantly more cost effective to manufacture and deploy than traditional aircraft and satellites.”