Barring mishap, QinetiQ will set a significant milestone in aviation history later today. After 14 days and nights in the air, the solar-powered Zephyr unmanned aircraft we wrote about last week is set to land, claiming a raft of world records for flight duration and the title of the world's first truly persistent aeroplane.
Zephyr was launched on July 9 and is currently still flying above the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Today it will achieve its objective of setting a number of performance and altitude records and the Zephyr team will bring the aircraft back to earth.
Unlike several previously successful record attempts, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) has been present and monitoring progress at the Yuma Proving Ground and Zephyr will hence claim official world records when it touches down safely.
It will quadruple its own unofficial world record for the longest duration unmanned flight (82 hours, 37 minutes) set in 2008 and eclipse the current official world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system which was set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk in March 2001.
Zephyr will also have flown longer, non-stop and without refueling, than any other aeroplane – having significantly passed the Rutan Voyager milestone of 9 days (216hours) 3 minutes and 44 seconds airborne, set in December 1986.
The biggest advantage of the Zephyr though, is that it is significantly more cost effective to manufacture and deploy than traditional aircraft and satellites.
It can be transported in a standard road transport container, and once launched Zephyr can remain above a general area for weeks, if not months, at a time delivering vital capability at a fraction of the cost of satellites and significantly more cost effectively than other ‘conventionally powered’ manned or unmanned aircraft.
Zephyr also does not need to return to base at regular intervals for re-fueling or servicing which helps minimize the logistical supply chain, extending its operational capability and appeal. Its zero emissions also make it exceptionally environmentally friendly.