Solar-powered drone stays aloft for two weeks

Dec 27 2010 - 5:09pm

LOS ANGELES -- A lightweight, solar-powered drone with a massive 73-foot wingspan flew above the clouds for 14 consecutive days, shattering long-standing aviation endurance records, according to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

The international governing body for aeronautics confirmed last week that the solar-powered robotic plane, dubbed Zephyr, soared above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona from July 9 to July 23.

Built by British defense contractor QinetiQ, the drone's 336-hour, 22-minute flight crushed the previous endurance record for a robotic plane, which was held by Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk drone. That unmanned flight, which took place in March 2001, lasted 30 hours, 24 minutes.

The Zephyr's flight also marked the longest time an airplane flew without refueling. The previous mark was set in December 1986 by the Rutan Aircraft Factory's Voyager and its milestone of 216 hours, three minutes. The Voyager, which had a pilot in the cockpit, was the first plane to travel around the world without stopping or refueling.

The Zephyr, which resembles an oversized version of those balsa wood gliders you threw at classmates in grammar school, was remotely piloted and carried British military communications equipment.

With the help of five people, it was hand-launched from the Yuma test range and climbed to an altitude of more than 70,000 feet using solar panels on the plane's wing.

QinetiQ is hoping that the flight will help it land a large order for the spy plane, which it touts as being capable of "tracking pirates in the Gulf of Aden, detecting bush fires in Australia, and improving battlefield communications and surveillance in Afghanistan."

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