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British drone breaks record for longest flight

An international governing board for aeronautic records has confirmed that a solar-powered drone shattered a long-standing endurance record by flying continuously for 14 days last summer.

Built by British defense contractor QinetiQ, the drone remained airborne 336 hour, 22 minutes, crushing the previous endurance record for a robotic plane, which was held by Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk drone. That unmanned flight, which took place in March 2001, lasted 30 hours, 24 minutes.

The QinetiQ drone, dubbed Zephyr, flew from July 9 to July 23 over the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

Federation Aéronautique Internationale said Zephyr’s flight also marked the longest time an airplane flew without refueling. The previous mark — 216 hours, three minutes — was set in December 1986 by the Rutan Aircraft Factory’s Voyager. The Voyager, which had a pilot in the cockpit, was the first plane to travel around the world without stopping or refueling.

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The Zephyr, with a 73-foot wingspan, was remotely piloted and carried British military communications equipment.

With the help of five people, it was hand-launched from the Yuma test range and climbed to an altitude of more than 70,000 feet using solar panels on the plane’s wing.

QinetiQ is hoping that the flight will help it land a large order for the spy plane, which it says is capable of “tracking pirates in the Gulf of Aden, detecting bush fires in Australia, and improving battlefield communications and surveillance in Afghanistan.”

william.hennigan@latimes.com


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