We’ve brought you news about the solar powered Zephyr plane and its ability to break records such as the world’s longest unmanned flight before, but this week, the UK-designed plane not only had its record breaking two week (336 hour) flight confirmed by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), but it was also determined that the Zephyr shattered another two records. The FAI reported that the Zephyr also holds the records for flight duration for a UAV of its class (an unmanned craft weighing 50-500kg) and the altitude record for that class at 21,562m (70,741ft).
The FAI also confirmed the claims – that the Zephyr had completely destroyed the record for an unmanned autonomous vehicle flight - that we reported on back in August. The record had previously been set by Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk in 2001, but the Zephyr beat its feat by a factor of 11 with an official duration of 336 hours, 22 minutes and eight seconds.
As our previous articles have noted, the plane is powered by electricity generated by photovoltaic arrays on its wings. Made of amorphous silicon, the arrays are about as thick as a sheet of paper. The solar power also charge the aircraft’s lithium-sulphur batteries. However the key to the Zephyr’s success is its weight. As it is made from carbon fiber and has a wingspan of 22.5m (74ft), the Zephyr weighs barely more than 50kg (110 lb).
The Zephyr was designed and built by defense technology company Qinetiq for use in the field of surveillance and communications. It is hoped that its long range and long term flight abilities (which have earned it the nickname “the eternal plane”) will lend itself to hostile regions.
“This aircraft can help track pirates off the Horn of Africa, alert the authorities about where and how fast forest fires are spreading, and ensure that soldiers’ communications remain unaffected when fighting in mountainous or hilly terrain,” said Qinetiq’s chief designer Chris Kelleher, speaking to the BBC.