Record Breaking Surveillance

The 14-day flight of a British-built, solar-powered aircraft in the skies above the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground last summer has officially been confirmed as the world record for the longest flight for an unmanned aircraft.

“We knew we had set a record, we just needed to wait for the confirmation,” said Senior Test Officer Billy Loftis. “We submitted all our paperwork to them back in July.”

Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international governing board for aeronautic records, has confirmed that the drone’s flight shattered a long-standing endurance record for flying continuously.

Built by defense contractor QinetiQ, the drone remained airborne 336 hours, 22 minutes, and 8 seconds, crushing 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.

Dubbed the Zephyr, this summer’s drone flew from July 9 to July 23 and made a successful landing at YPG’s Castle Dome Heliport at 7:03 a.m. on the final morning of its flight, having been airborne for 14 days and 23 minutes.

Hand-launched by five people at 6:41 a.m. on the first morning, with the objective of setting a number of performance and altitude records, the Zephyr stayed entirely within the 2,000 square miles of airspace controlled by YPG and reached altitudes as high as 70,000 feet.

While the Zephyr flew on autopilot for most of the test flight, it was operated remotely via satellite by testers from YPG and QinetiQ only when necessary.

The FAI, which also had an official at YPG monitoring the operations during the July test flight, added that Zephyr’s flight also marked the longest time an airplane flew without refueling.

The previous mark — 216 hours, three minutes — was set in December 1986 by the Rutan Aircraft Factory’s Voyager. The Voyager, which had a pilot in the cockpit, was the first plane to travel around the world without stopping or refueling.

The Zephyr actually broke three records during its flight, Loftis said, with the third one being for highest altitude achieved for an aircraft its size, reaching a top altitude of 70,743 feet.

According to QinetiQ, the Zephyr, which has wingspan of 73 feet and weighs 110 pounds, can stay in the air for such long periods because it is powered by the sun. Extremely thin and light solar panels cover its wings and are used to recharge lithium-sulphur batteries, which are used to power the aircraft’s engines at night.

And with a 73-foot wingspan, the Zephyr has a lot of surface for solar panels and a lot of lift relative to its weight thanks to a carbon-fiber body.

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

While it hasn’t been confirmed yet, Loftis said that QinetiQ plans on returning sometime next year to continue testing.

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