UK to build record-breaking solar planes

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image copyrightAirbus

A solar plane which can stay aloft for weeks at a time is to be manufactured by Airbus in the UK.

The unmanned craft flies high in the atmosphere to avoid commercial air traffic and adverse weather.

Known as the Zephyr, its remote-sensing potential has already seen the UK MoD invest, but Airbus also hope to develop the craft as a communications platform.

The Zephyr will now begin industrial production in Farnborough, after several years of testing.

Named for the Zephyr's late inventor, the newly opened Kelleher facility has the capacity to produce up to 30 of the planes each year.

Its inauguration was announced at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show.

image copyrightPhil Adams/Airbus
image captionA completed Zephyr at the Kelleher facility

Powered by solar energy during the day, and solar-charged batteries by night, the Zephyr holds the absolute endurance record for un-refuelled aeroplanes - 336 hours, 22 minutes and eight seconds in the air.

The latest model, the Zephyr S, is currently aloft above the skies of Arizona in the US, where Airbus aims to fly it for 30 days, breaking the vehicle's own 14-day record set in 2010.

The 120-day flight capacity promised by the craft's lightweight battery technology has yet to be tested, but the company hopes to do so within the next year.

image copyrightPhil Adams/Airbus
image captionThe craft itself weighs only 30kg, with an additional 30kg of battery

Various remote-sensing systems are currently being tested for use with the craft. As it can remain aloft at upwards of 70,000ft (21km) in one region for a continuous period of time, rather than orbiting the Earth like a traditional satellite, its potential for monitoring activity such as shipping traffic and wildfires is being explored.

The plane's 5kg payload allowance does make accommodating a range of instruments a challenge. The whole craft weighs less than 75kg, much of which is devoted to its battery technology.

Plans for future models include a twin tail, which would accommodate a heavier payload.

image copyrightFacebook
image captionFor a time, Facebook were also developing similar technology

Other companies have also expressed an interest in the technology's communications capability.

Facebook, who recently retired a similar project known as Aquila, have been collaborating with Airbus.

According to Janna Rosenmann, head of unmanned aerial systems at Airbus, the two companies "have a joint goal to try to bring internet connectivity... to connect the unconnected".