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 Technovelgy.com)