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July 16, 2010

Record Flight of the Solar Plane

The Zephyr taking to the air
A neat little follow-up: A little over a year ago, I ran across a story on a novel concept: a solar airplane. That version was a prototype for a manned version, that hopes to take flight across the Atlantic by 2012 and eventually around the world. A few days ago, I noticed that, while the solar plane of Bertrand Picard is still a ways out, there is another solar plane hoping to circuit the world.

Developed by the British research company QinetiQ, the Zephyr planes are already showing fantastic results. One prototype ran flew for a continuous 83 hours. The latest model has a 22.5 meter wingspan, state-of-the-art solar panels, and lithium-sulfur batteries that power its twin propellers. The batteries can keep it running night at night, and recharge during the day. It's light, it's efficient, and it's a plane that flies completely pollution free. The QinetiQ team is hoping to fly a Zephyr around the world by 2012, the same year that Picard's team hopes to fly a person across an ocean. We're still a very long way from solar panels replacing jet fuel, but this technology hints at a bright future for flying on alternative energy.

UPDATE (July 16): QinetiQ has announced today that the Zephyr has been up in the air over Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona continuously for over 168 hours, putting it at a full week. The goal is to keep it flying for another week, thus proving the plane can stay aloft indefinitely. This is an incredible achievement, and the applications for this kind of technology are unlimited: surveillance, communication, earth observation... It is truly a technological breakthrough, and a major win for solar and other alternative energies.

Source: BBC News: Zephyr solar plane set for record endurance flight
UPDATE: QinetiQ Zephyr UAV; QinetiQ website
BBC News- Zephyr solar plane flies 7 days non-stop

Thanks to Douglas Millard at QinetiQ's press office for the update.