Solar airplane flies for 54 hours

September 11, 2007

A London-based company, QinetiQ, has maintained its increasing line of successes in the New Mexico desert with solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The latest, a 66-pound, carbon-fiber Zephyr High Altitude Long Endurance UAV described as hand-launched despite its 59-foot wingspan, stayed aloft 54 hours at 58,355 feet. It won't be a record, though, because the secret test wasn't registered in advance with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the official keeper of world aviation records.

The research vehicle was sponsored by the U.K. Ministry of Defense. It carried a surveillance payload during the flight and on a second flight to 52,247 feet lasting nearly 34 hours. It is powered by paper-thin silicon arrays and survived at night on lithium-sulfur batteries.