Solar Aircraft Sets Record

The carbon-fiber Zephyr's batteries are charged by the sun and their accumulated energy allow it to continue flying at night.

An ultra-light unmanned aircraft powered by solar energy and designed for military surveillance landed on July 23 after two weeks aloft and setting a record for the longest unmanned flight, its manufacturer said.

The British-based defense technology firm QinetiQ said its 74-foot long Zephyr, weighing just 110 pounds, finally touched down in the Arizona desert 14 days and 21 minutes after it took off from the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground.

"It was airborne for 14 days and 21 minutes," company spokeswoman Claire Scotter said."We await the FAI (World Air Sports Federation) official confirmation of the world records."

The flight, which according to local newspaper the Yuma Sun saw the craft climb to 70,000 feet, shattered the unofficial world record for the longest duration unmanned flight of 82 hours by the same aircraft in 2008.

Last week when it broke the record, the company said it had set out to create "the world's first truly eternal plane, capable of providing a low-cost, persistent surveillance capability over months rather than days."

"Potential applications include earth observation and communications relay in support of a range of defense, security and commercial requirements," it said.

The latest model of the carbon-fiber Zephyr is around 50% bigger than earlier versions, giving it more space for its lithium batteries. The batteries are charged by the sun and their accumulated energy allow it to continue flying at night.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are set to play a growing role in combat. They are already being used by NATO forces in Afghanistan for intelligence-gathering but also increasingly in an offensive role, carrying out strike missions on enemy targets.

The vital role that UAVs are playing was highlighted earlier this week at Farnborough air show outside London, where companies such as defense group Northrop Grumman said the unmanned aircraft sector could soar to sales of $3.5 billion in the next decade.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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