UAV sets duration world record

Published 12 September 2007

QinetiQ’s Zephyr uses solar power to fly for 54 hours while carrying a surveillance payload

Hats off to Farnborough, Hampshire, U.K.-basedQinetiQ: Its Zephyr High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV has broken the official world record time for the longest duration unmanned flight with an impressive fifty-four hour flight achieved during trials at the U.S. military’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The flight trials were funded through the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MOD) research programme. The duration of the flight exceeded the current official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record for unmanned flight which stands at 30 hours 24 minutes set by Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4A Global Hawk on 22 March 2001. Because there was no FAI official present at White Sands during the Zephyr’s flight, the achievement may not stand as an official world record.

Launched by hand, Zephyr is an ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre aircraft with a wingspan of up to eighteen meters but weighing only thirty kg. By day it flies on solar power generated by amorphous silicon arrays no thicker than sheets of paper that cover the aircraft’s wings. By night it is powered by rechargeable lithium-sulphur batteries that are recharged during the day using solar power. The trials validated recent modifications which have improved the efficiency of Zephyr’s power system. These have included new solar arrays supplied by Auburn Hills, Michigan-based United Solar Ovonic, a full flight-set of batteries from Tucson, Arizona-based Sion Power, as well as a novel solar-charger and bespoke autopilot developed by QinetiQ, all of which were being flown for the first time. During the trials the same aircraft was flown twice while carrying a surveillance payload — first for 54 hours to a maximum altitude of 58,355 feet, and then for 33 hours 43 minutes to a maximum altitude of 52,247 feet. Potential applications for Zephyr include earth observation and communications relay in support of a range of defense, security, and civil requirements.

Paul Davey, Zephyr business development director at QinetiQ, was correct to note that “The possibilities suggested by unmanned flight are truly exciting and with these trials Zephyr has secured its place in the history of UAV development. Both flights were achieved in the face of thunderstorms and debilitating heat in the hostile environment of the New Mexico high desert in the summertime. They have proved that an autonomous UAV can be operated on solar-electric power for the duration required to support persistent military operations.”