This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

September 12, 2007

Solar-Powered Airplane Achieves Record Unmanned Flight Duration

Photo of the Zephyr aircraft, which is mainly a long rectangular wing that angles up at both ends. A rod connects the wing to a tail structure, and two small props are mounted to the wing.

A view from the rear of the Zephyr unmanned aerial vehicle as it soars over New Mexico.
Credit: QinetiQ

An unmanned solar-powered aircraft has flown for 54 consecutive hours over the deserts of New Mexico, setting an unofficial record for the longest unmanned flight. Called the Zephyr High Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the craft features a 59-foot wingspan covered with thin-film amorphous silicon solar cells from United Solar Ovonic. The Zephyr flies at night using energy stored in a rechargeable lithium-sulfur battery pack from Sion Power. QinetiQ incorporated those technologies into a 66-pound aircraft made of carbon fiber composites.

Launched from the White Sands Missile Range, the Zephyr flew twice while carrying a surveillance payload, reaching an altitude of 58,355 feet on its record flight. Funded by a research program of the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence, the Zephyr is designed as a high-altitude platform for surveillance or communications. The official record for a UAV flight is 30 hours and 24 minutes. The Zephyr flight cannot claim the official record because there was no official witness from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), or world's air sports federation, which is the official keeper of aeronautic records. According to the FAI Web site, QinetiQ has already submitted two world record claims for the duration and altitude of a Zephyr flight in late July. See the QinetiQ press release and the FAI Web site.