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QinetiQ’s Solar-Powered Zephyr UAV Beats World Record For Longest Duration Unmanned Flight

QinetiQ’s Zephyr High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) has exceeded the official world record time for the longest duration unmanned flight with a 54-hour flight achieved during trials at the US Military’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The Zephyr in flight.

The duration of the flight exceeded the current official 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, the Zephyr flight 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 18 metres but weighing just 30 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 that have improved the efficiency of Zephyr’s power system. These have included new solar arrays supplied by United Solar Ovonic, a full flight-set of Sion Power batteries 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 defence, security and civil requirements.

Zephyr has demonstrated consistent progress during a series of flight trials at White Sands Missile Range. In December 2005 two aircraft achieved a maximum duration of 6 hours and an altitude above 26,000 feet. The maximum flight duration was trebled to 18 hours and the maximum altitude increased to 36,000 feet at subsequent trials at the missile range in July 2006.

The flight trials were funded through the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) research program.



A larger version with a more substantial (passive and active EMF sensors) payload would work well over Afghanistan and Iraq. You can watch over roads and infrastucture for belligerent activities. Add 5-10K pilots at FOBs or in theater, and you can cover most population areas of concern. It would not solve all of the problems of these wars, but it will help reduce casualties, and increase situational awareness.


Interesting that they state they used lithium-sulphur cells. These have the highest energy density of any rechargeable chemistry (>400 Wh/kg) which is exactly what you need for lightweight applications like this.


An airplane with a wingspan of 18 meters and total weight of 30 kilos. This is truly amazing. Really. The 54 hours record is also truly amazing. It means this plane must be close to the point where it could fly 24 hours a day for as many days as needed as long as it don´t break. It will probably take less than 5 more years off additional improvements in solar panels, batteries and power consumption before they are able to build such a plane. Such a breakthrough will dramatically cut the costs of surveillance, mobile communication and all sorts of data gathering such as map making, agricultural optimization and pollution control. Its potential is enormous.



I imagine the key thing here is the fragility of the system. 16 meters and 30KG does not sound robust at all.

Fantastic as a record breaker, but might be tricky to handle - I wonder how the flight ended.

Also, can you hold a camera steady enough in such a light machine - do you need gyros and if so, how much does a viable sensor package weigh ?

Henrik may have said it - "beautiful" - but any use ?

Time will tell, but I wish them well.


White Sands testing area with mostly fixed, steady meteorology. What happens to a 30kg system in a 30kt wind gust? Extended rain? Temperature inversions? Snow? Sleet? Lightning? Not yet out of the lab.


Sure it is still a test plane not cleared and approved for real use yet. Still it may be more robust to weather than you may first think of such a light aircraft. It flies at 58000 feet and this is above most kinds of rain and snow systems as far as I know with my limited meteorological knowledge. Plus it is an airplane so it should be able to withstand winds that are less than its own speed. However, I could imagine that such a light plane is very sensitive to atmospheric icing.

Even if this plane can only be made to fly only 50% of the days in a typical weather system during the year that will still be very useful for many applications because the cost of flying these planes will be a fraction of the cost of flying more conventional planes.

For instance, for map making it really does not matter at all whether the map is made today or tomorrow. For surveillance they will be able to postpone the wear down on the conventional all weather drones and they can also do all the surveillance where the “live factor” is not an issue.

I am sure that if they get such a plane up and flying within 5 years a plane that is self sustained with power from solar panels and that can fly as long as the weather permits it then it will not take another 10 years before these planes will outnumber the combined number of all other types of airplanes.

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