Amazing Ultralight Solar Plane Flies For Days

QinetiQ engineers launch the company's 'Zephyr' solar- and battery-powered aircraft from the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., on July 28 for a flight that ended on July 31, 82 hours 37 minutes later. The aircraft flew over the Sonora Desert, at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet. British company QinetiQ claims the flight set a new unofficial world record for unmanned flight, breaking the official world record by more than 50 hours. (Image credit: QinetiQ)

The Zephyr solar plane has sailed to what may be a record for sun-powered unmanned flight. The 66-pound craft was aloft for 83 hours and 7 minutes. The plane makes use of ultra-lightweight carbon-fiber to save on weight. It flies on solar power generated by paper-thin silicon solar arrays on its wings.

The Zephyr solar-powered plane is able to fly autonomously, using GPS to keep on track. Launched by hand, Zephyr charges its batteries during the day for night flying. Initially, the plane was flown remotely to an altitude of 60,000 feet; the plane was able to fly by itself for the remaining time.

[The flight is unlikely to be an official record, however, because the company did not meet criteria laid down by the world's air sports federation.]

Other solar-powered surveillance planes are under development, like the Helios craft that has already flown a number of successful test flights. The Zephyr is considered a possible predecessor to the planned DARPA Vulture Five Year Flying Wing. The "five years" part refers to the length of proposed continuous flight time.

Zephyr itself is the result of a collaboration betweent the UK-based company QinetiQ Group PLC and the U.S. military's DARPA.

Fans of science fiction are not surprised by these developments. Planes that soar forever on station? Read about the stratovision television plane from E.B. White's 1950 short story The Morning of the Day They Did It.

In his 1980 story Changeling, writer Roger Zelazny describes solar-powered 'tracer bird' surveillance drones that sound very similar to the Zephyr project.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of

Bill Christensen catalogues the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers at his website, Technovelgy. He is a contributor to Live Science.