back to article 'Eternal' sun-plane still aloft after 7 days, aiming for 14

A British-made solar powered aircraft has been airborne above a US military test range in Arizona for more than seven days continuously, it has been announced. The Zephyr solar-powered UAV before trials in Arizona. Credit: Qinetiq Make the most of it lads, your sons will be doing the next servicing. The "Zephyr", made by …


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  1. James Hughes 1

    Headline is a bit harsh

    If you were going to attempt a record for longest electic flight, powered by the sun, what's wrong with choosing somewhere sunny?

    After all, this thing is the first of its kind. It would be a bit daft to test it anywhere else. Leave the more difficult areas for future tests.

    When you build a new car, does the prototype immediately start driving at 150mph down the autobahn? Nope. When testing a new rocket, do you launch with an expensive payload? Nope. When testing a new yacht, do you test in force 8 gales? Nope. When testing software, do you first test edge cases? Nope. When testing PARIS do you immediately drop it off a 10 mile high ballon? Nope. When testing Paris, do you immediately go for the.... er, OK, so there is always an exception.

    1. Marvin the Martian
      Thumb Up

      Depends on where you want to go.

      If it doesn't really matter where you fly --- then go across the equator each if summer turns to winter.

      The difference is anyway marginal, solar panels in housing applications generate 99% of their maximum with a cloud-covered sky, for example. So if this generation stays aloft in 100% favourable conditions, it's a tweak away from "everywhere except arctic winters".

      1. lasersage

        99% of their maximum efficiency with a cloud-covered sky?

        I can't believe that is true, what information are you basing that upon?

        When its cloudy I need the lights on in my office, when its not, I don't. There are 4 banks of 4x18W tubes in my office, so that's an additional 288W needed to keep a decent level of lighting in my (fairly small) office.

        I think the real issue aside from cloud cover (you may be able to fly above the clouds but I'm not sure what you'd see :) is the angle at which places further from the equator are angled to the sun.

        The UK gets drastically less energy per square metre than somewhere on the equator.

        You are thinking of photovoltaic right? Not the solar hot water heaters? A nice toasty bath on a plane is all well and good but something's gotta power the engines.

    2. Steve Roper

      Well, considering

      that pretty much every trouble-spot country needing American military intervention is within a bull's fart of the equator anyway, I don't see a problem with it. When was the last time anyone had to deploy troops in Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, upper Scandinavia or Antarctica?

    3. Evil Auditor Silver badge

      @James Hughes

      Of course you are right but there are some good reasons for such tongue-in-cheek comments. Firstly, it is The Register. This is a sufficient condition already. And secondly, it may be influenced by watching too much youtube. There appear to be loads of tubetards who have nothing better to do than test their presumtions in most extreme situations going for a Darwin Award - much to my amusement. FAIL icon 'cause that's how such videos are usually called.

  2. Richard Gadsden 1

    "MoD boffinry selloff bonanza firm Qinetiq"

    You have surpassed yourselves.

    "MoD boffinry selloff bonanza firm Qinetiq"

    That's just beautiful.

  3. Dexter
    Thumb Up

    Birds already did it

    Neat, but didn't Albatrosses crack this problem a long time ago?

    1. Havin_it
      Thumb Down

      RE: Birds

      Pretty sure an albatross needs to come down and eat at some point...

    2. informavorette

      not exactly

      1. I've never heard of a bird capable of photosynthesis. Albatrosses are constantly refuelling by picking high-protein package from the water below.

      2. I've also never heard of a bird capable of doing military surveillance (outside of a Disney film, that is).

      I'll nevertheless zweckentfremd the bird icon, cause nature is still a bit ahead of tech in some ways.

      BTW, where is the world headed to? First I read that planes fly better than birds, then The Register's woefully incomplete supply contains exactly the icon I need, while the language with most words in the world doesn't have the word I need so I have to borrow from German. Grumble.

      1. M Gale


        Google thinks it means either "divert", "any purpose for", "misuse", or "purpose for which", all of which I'm sure are hilariously wrong.

        Uhm, pick one at random?

        1. Chad H.


          Clearly misuse as penguins aren't albatrosses

      2. David McMahon


        zweckentfremd it comes top!!!!

        Nice one!

        Can you get my website on page 1 please? :) there's a pint waiting!

  4. Paul Williams
    Thumb Down

    Ah, but

    'there has been a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn't work'

    Complaining that its operating in favourable conditions seems churlish. If the Wright brothers had launched their plane in the middle of a hurricane and it had been destroyed then what would have been achieved?

    The progress of civilisation has always been in incremental one.

  5. dr2chase

    Once they can handle the equinox

    At that point, then can then fly across the Dread Equator, into the other hemisphere. Eternal flight, just not in one place.

  6. mky

    I wonder how

    well it will deal with the Sonoran desert's monsoons. Two years ago a micro-burst here, literally spun one of Boeing's Dreamlifters 45º. Dragging it over Ground Support Equipment, and generally tearing the beast up. 120 mph winds can be very entertaining.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Yeah but ....

    "Yuma Proving Ground lies in the Sonoran Desert just 32 degrees north of the Equator, and the northern-hemisphere summer solstice is only just past"

    Now perhaps I is just being fick but, would it not be even easier further north where there is more daylight each day (less time flying on batteries)?

    1. Nexox Enigma


      """Now perhaps I is just being fick but, would it not be even easier further north where there is more daylight each day (less time flying on batteries)?"""

      The closer to the equator you get, the more head-on the sunlight hits. Sun power per area goes something like sin(latitude), which gives you near 0 power in full daylight at the poles, and a good amount at the equator. This is how the poles stay frozen even with months of sunlight.

      1. David McMahon


        To prevent getting bombed by photo-voltaic aircraft hide in Hoth?!? Oh wait...

    2. DavCrav

      Intensity of the sunlight

      Just a guess, but it might be that the further north you are, the lower the angle of the sun, so the more spread out the sunlight is, and also the more atmosphere it has to travel through, so the energy extracted might not be as high. (Remember that it's still cold in the Antarctic even during the summer.)

  8. Eugene Goodrich
    Paris Hilton

    Might be eternal yet, actually.

    It might not be able to fly eternally everywhere (it would probably have a hard time making it through a single winter's night over the North or South Pole, for example) but it might still stay aloft indefinitely if it traveled North and South as the seasons change, so it was always flying in local summer. As it's an airplane and it takes months for the seasons to switch hemispheres, it might be able to make the trip.

    I suppose that would also give it the record for annual robot migration distance.

    1. frank ly

      The Future

      If more of them are made, they might migrate to the breeding grounds. What happens after that does not bear thinking about.

  9. Red Bren

    LP picks faults with UK tech

    Perhaps you're upset the Yanks didn't do it first to maintain your world-view of US=good UK=bad? Of course like most UK invented tech, it will be starved of local investment, the US will take it over and commercialise it, then claim it was their invention all along.

    1. Not That Andrew

      Qinetiq not British anymore!

      Qinetiq is an international death-tech company, not a British one. Most of their employees are West of the pond and they are in the process of laying of yet another 10% of their British workers (but no Americans).

      More reasons that ex-military type like Lewis Page hate them is how they criminally undervalued the assets when it was privatised, totally ripping off the MOD, then immediately paid themselves fat bonuses, laid off a bunch of British staff, and went on a buying spree in America. They also continue to play the" we're a British company" bullshit with the government, getting preferential treatment and ridiculous prices and STILL delivering over budget, not up to spec and late. Which they somehow manage to avoid doing when dealing with the American military.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    titles: just say no

    "meaning that the Zephyr is getting far more energy from its cells than it would farther north or at other times of year." - Yay - can we have the one about windmills not working when it isn't windy as well?

    Nuclear planes here we come.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Tried, and failed, something to do with radiating the crew because they couldnt carry enough shielding, planes unlike our watery counterparts have serious limits when it comes to slaping a reactor in them.

  11. Joe User

    "Would be nice to see how it does at mid winter"

    I take it that the author has never been to Yuma, Arizona during mid-winter? Scroll down to the climate data section:

    1. Darryl


      Where do you think these things will be deployed? Over a damp island nation northwest of Europe? No, they'll be flying over countries not far from the equator.

  12. Andus McCoatover

    Bloody well done, chaps and chapesses!

    Gotta agree with "James Hughes 1" on this one. It's now been proven possible. The Wright brothers didn't build an A380, FFS!

    Of course, QinetiQ could've tested it in winter in Northern Finland in the 'Kaamos' (Total darkness) but what would have been the bloody point of that?

    Most of the hot-heat terrorist places are rather near the equator, so loads of 'fuel' for the thing.

    (Plus, although we have a lot of Muslim immigrants here, our terr'ist rate is pretty low. Like zero, so I don't see it flying over here anytime soon.)

  13. zanto

    let me be the first to declare that...

    i for one welcome our sun juice sucking, eternally high overlords

  14. Ryan Barrett

    and the Russians...

    ..just use a helium filled balloon.

    1. robert247


      another reason to 'split the sky' (to deny life giving fuet to the metal overlord) is born...

  15. Martin Usher

    We end up using those things where its sunny all the time...

    Last time I looked we were not fighting insurgencies in Canada. We're stuck in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where its sunny far too much of the time.

    1. Alan Firminger

      Its systemic

      Violence correlates with sunshine .

      I can understand why.

  16. rc

    It's really cool guys, but...

    Can you hang guns and bombs on it? You know how much we love our guns and bombs over here. And if we can have eternally hovering ones, well... How much for fifty then?

  17. raving angry loony


    Sounds like a blog post by a very bitter man. I won't speculate as to why that might be.

    When trying to set a record, could the author perhaps elaborate on why they should chose something other than "uniquely favourable circumstances"? Well, hardly unique, since summer solstice does happen every year after all. Sort of by definition.

    Should they perhaps have tried to better a world record in the Antarctic in winter, with no sun at all? Would the author argue that attempts at other world records, such as distance running, sprinting or pogo stick jumping should all handicap themselves somehow?

    It seems they were testing the endurance of the basic aircraft. Or is the author arguing that they should immediately go test a fully outfitted aircraft with full power load out before doing basic testing on the essential elements?

    Sorry sonny, but that's not how science or engineering works.

    There's biting the hand that feeds you, but snarling at something like this just makes the author look pretty silly. IMHO of course.

    1. John Watts
      Thumb Down

      missing the point

      "There's no doubt that the current flight is a significant achievement for Qinetiq. However, as with Zephyr's previous unofficially record-breaking flight one can't help noticing that the firm has chosen to make the attempt in uniquely favourable circumstances.


      If the sun-plane is generating a large surplus above what it needs to stay airborne, well and good: Qinetiq are offering no details at this point. If it isn't, though, its claim to be the first useful "eternal plane" will look rather unfounded. ®"

      It's about claiming it to be the "first useful 'eternal plane'" when adding a couple of webcams and a radio might take its endurance down to 14 hours.

      I got the impression the author understood science and engineering from the last paragraph. I also got the impression he understood PR talk.

      IMHO of course.

  18. TkH11


    Any electrically powered aeroplane is a very difficult design challenge because of the weight of the batteries. The more weight you need to carry, either: the bigger the wings or the faster it needs to fly to generate enough lift to balance the weight. Flying faster means more power being required from the batteries, which means they need to bigger and heavier.

    Bombs? Forget it ! Not a chance.

    You can be sure on a design like this, incredible attention has been paid to saving every ounze in weight as possible.

    1. John Blagden


      "You can be sure on a design like this, incredible attention has been paid to saving every ounze in weight as possible."

      It's a technology demonstration. Of course everything is going to be lined up to give it the best chance.

      Once they can prove the technology can do something they can ask for more budget. Once other companies cotton on to the fact there is a market you'll get lighter materials, better photo-cells, more efficient motors, lighter and longer lasting batteries etc. All of which might be useful in some other areas as well.

      Let's review this in ten years, m'kay?

      The longest journeys start with a single step.

  19. TkH11


    Solar panels still produce 99% of their output under cloudy conditions?

    Don't talk wet man. You obviously haven't actually used any solar panels.

    I was playing with them back in 1987, whilst I made no specific measurements regarding their power output under cloudy conditions but I can tell you it's not 99%.

    Are you really saying that level of sunlight isn't reduced in cloudy conditions?

    Funny, but being 40 years old and living in the UK all my life, I always thought winters were darker than summers...

    Try thinking for a moment before you write.

  20. TkH11

    Effectiveness of solar panels

    Depends on the brightness of the light and the spectrum of light (amplitude of the wavelengths present).

    In winter conditions, the aircraft can fly above the cloud, so clouds per se, don't matter.

    The article suggests, quite correctly, the issue is to do with the angle of the sun.

    Solar panels are quite sensitive to the angle of the incident radiation, with them working at their best when the radiation is perpendicular to the plane of the panel.

    The question is, does the angle of the sun result in too low a power being produced to keep the batteries charged. It's a valid question.

    At high altitude the sun is so bright that the angle of sun may not matter so much, subject to extreme angles.

    There's no way we can know the answer to this, that's for the designers to answer that.

  21. lglethal Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Sounds like a good jolly for the FIA man...

    Sounds like a good jolly for the FIA man, he just has to sit around for two weeks and wait for the thing to come down! Is there good sightseeing in Yuma?

  22. Graham Bartlett

    "Unfounded"? not really

    This is the first one. It's designed to show that it's physically possible, so more serious projects can go ahead.

    As far as I remember, Scaled Composites weren't carrying a comms satellite either when they did the world's first private spaceflight. It doesn't mean they weren't the world's first private spaceflight, just that they were the first to prove the concept.

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