Newcastle University engineers in the UK will help QinetiQ build a monster, record-breaking solar-powered plane under a project jointly funded by Boeing and the US Government. The unmanned SolarEagle aircraft fitted with solar panels will be able to stay in the air at an altitude of more than 18km for five years at a time.
The SolarEagle will also be the largest aerial vehicle in the world with a mammoth wing-span of 120 metres. That’s bigger than the Airbus wide-body A380 passenger jet (about 75 metres). However, having a gigantic plane travelling at heights where the temperature can drop to -60 degrees Celsius holds some big design hurdles for the engineers. This is especially true in the creation of an engine that can drive the propellers to lift the plane off the ground, while still being efficient and light-weight.
Professor Barrie Mecrow’s team at the Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives at Newcastle University have the necessary expertise and have secured the contract to develop SolarEagle’s engine. “The work is particularly challenging because the plane will be flying at a height of more than 60,000 feet where temperatures can be below minus 60 degrees and conventional systems stop working,” said Mecrow.
Newcastle University hopes to have the first two prototypes of the plane’s motors ready to test in the next six months. SolarEagle’s first test flight is tentatively planned for 2014.
The team has already collaborated with QinetiQ on Zephyr, another solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Much smaller with a 22.5 metre wingspan, it can travel at similar altitudes to SolarEagle and secured the endurance record for unmanned aerial flight after a 336 hour (two week) journey. Officially the longest ever UAS flight (beating Global Hawk’s record by a factor of 11) at 336 hours 22 minutes 8 seconds and at a height of 21,562m (5,000ft higher than Global Hawk)