A solar-powered aircraft developed by QinetiQ has claimed the absolute duration record for time aloft for an unmanned aerial vehicle, the company said last week. The Zephyr UAV flew for over two weeks -- 336 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds -- on its first flight, in July, beating the former record set by a Global Hawk UAV by a factor of 11. The Zephyr is designed to provide a low-cost communications and surveillance platform. "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 chief designer Chris Kelleher. The Zephyr flew its record-setting flight at above 70,000 feet, setting an altitude record for its class.
From its peak altitude at more than 13 miles above the ground, Zephyr can watch over a diameter of 600 miles, and has demonstrated this by sending continuous, high-resolution live images back to Earth, the company said. By comparison, satellites provide intermittent, distant and expensive "snapshot per orbit" surveillance from 100 miles high. Zephyr has also demonstrated an ability to relay military and civil communications in remote areas between simple hand-held radios, the company said. QinetiQ expects that Zephyr will be able to stay aloft for months at a time without landing, providing a low-cost aerial platform. It has a wingspan of about 74 feet and is launched by hand. Flexible silicon solar arrays cover the aircraft's wings, and the solar cells recharge lithium-sulfur batteries that provide power overnight. The UAV is constructed from carbon fiber and weights just over 110 pounds. A video of the launch is posted online at the company's website.