Record breaking Zephyr offers 24/7 cost effective military surveillance and communications

23 Dec 2010
Tracking pirates in the Gulf of Aden, detecting bush fires in Australia, and improving battlefield communications and surveillance in Afghanistan are all potential uses for the solar powered unmanned aircraft, Zephyr, which has now officially been awarded three World Records – including one for the longest flight ever by an aeroplane - two weeks - and one for altitude higher than any current surveillance aeroplane in its class. These records were achieved on the first flight of the all-new Zephyr aircraft.

Experts at QinetiQ say that because of Zephyr’s unique ability to fly higher and longer than any other current aircraft, it offers enormous benefits to a number of potential customers in the military, academic, commercial and scientific arenas.

Soaring 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. This has a massive advantage over the intermittent, distant and expensive “snapshot per orbit” from satellites flying 100 miles above the earth. Zephyr has also demonstrated its ability to relay essential military and civil communications in remote areas between simple hand-held radios.
Its persistent flight capability, soon to be months, also means that where other aircraft must eventually land, Zephyr can stay in the air for longer, providing an unrestricted view from high altitude.

Aside from having flight capabilities far beyond other aircraft and satellites, Zephyr also offers significant cost savings. It is just one tenth of the cost of other unmanned aerial vehicles and one hundredth of the cost of a satellite. At a time when governments, companies and universities around the world are trying to find cost cutting solutions, Zephyr provides a very attractive proposition.

Commenting on Zephyr’s potential, Chris Kelleher, QinetiQ’s chief designer, said:
“Zephyr is a record breaking piece of aviation design and engineering. It has unique flight capabilities, far beyond any other aircraft and satellites, which could be used in a huge range of scenarios with the lightweight but highly effective payloads we are developing.

“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.

“Aside from the remarkable length of time Zephyr can fly with a light but effective payload, it is extremely cost effective, which is crucial at a time when governments and companies across the globe are looking to tighten their belts.”

Notes for Editors:

The FAI has ratified three records which the QinetiQ HALE Team claimed following Zephyr’s long duration flight in July 2010:
• Absolute duration record Unmanned - The longest flying UAV in the world (beating Global Hawk’s record by a factor of 11) at 336 hours 22 minutes 8 seconds
• Class Record UAV (50-500kg) – Altitude: At a height of 21,562m (which is also 5,000ft higher than Global Hawk, albeit in a different category).
• Class Record UAV (50-500kg) – Duration: As above.


Launched by hand, the aircraft flies by day on solar power delivered by amorphous silicon solar arrays that cover the aircraft's wings and are no thicker than sheets of paper. These are supplied by Uni-Solar, the world’s largest producer of flexible solar panels. The solar arrays are also used to recharge the lithium-sulfur batteries that are used to power the aircraft by night and supplied by Sion Power Inc, a leading developer of the next high energy rechargeable battery technology. Together they provide an extremely high power to weight ratio on a continuous day/night cycle, thereby delivering persistent on station capabilities.

Around 50% larger than the previous version, Zephyr incorporates an entirely new wing design with a total wingspan of 22.5m to accommodate more batteries that are combined with a totally new integrated power management system. The entirely new aerodynamic shape also helps to reduce drag and improve performance. Zephyr’s ultra-lightweight carbon fibre design means it weighs in at just over 50Kg.

Previous records beaten include:
• Surpassing the previous world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system (set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk on 22 March 2001).
• Surpassing the Rutan Voyager milestone of 9 days (216hours) 3 minutes and 44 seconds airborne – previously the longest flight by an aeroplane without refuelling and set in Dec 1986.
• Quadrupling its own unofficial duration record of 82 hours, 37 minutes set in 2008
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Record breaking Zephyr offers 24/7 cost effective military surveillance and communications