QinetiQ, Europe's largest science and technology organization, has completed the first flight trials of Zephyr - a High-Altitude, Long-Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that has a 12 meter (39 ft) wingspan but weighs just 27 kilograms (59 pounds).
The trials took place at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, USA. Two aircraft were flown for four and a half and six hours respectively, the maximum flight times permitted under range restrictions. The maximum altitude attained was 27,000 feet above sea level.
The ultra-light aircraft is solar-electric powered, autonomous and is designed to fly at altitudes as high as 132,000ft (25 miles/40km), above normal commercial air-lanes and most weather. The platform is capable of continuous operation through the use of solar power and low drag aerodynamics. The combination of solar panels on the upper wing surface and rechargeable batteries allows Zephyr to be flown for durations of many weeks and even months. United Solar Ovonic’s lightweight solar cells have been incorporated into the Zephyr which is powered by approximately 1 kW of United Solar’s lightweight thin film PV.
QinetiQ believes that stratospheric platforms will rapidly become commercially viable and revolutionize future communications. High altitude platforms of this sort could provide a cheaper alternative to satellites in remote areas and developing countries. They can also enable observation of natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
The Energy Blog: Solar Powered UAV