First Italian solar powered UAV makes debut flights

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Researchers from Turin Polytechnic University have for the first time flown a solar-powered unmanned air vehicle demonstrator as part of ongoing European Commission-funded research into energy and environmentally friendly manned and unmanned aircraft.

The HeliPlat UAV demonstrator, a converted model sailplane, is being used to test solar cell and all electric propulsion concepts.

The flight-test series, carried out in early October near Turin, used a Super Dimona 2400 model motor glider with a 7m (22.9ft) span . The aircraft was modified to support a 2m (6.6ft) array of mono-crystalline silicon solar cells that were bonded over the wing skin. The UAV has also been fitted with rechargeable lithium batteries to support night flight operations.

Turin Polytechnic research leader Professor Giulio Romeo says that the flights are the first by a solar-powered UAV in Italy and the only solar-powered UAV flights currently taking place in Europe.

The UAV is carrying a thermal imaging camera and a video camera, with these having a combined weight of 4kg (9lb). The model was fitted with an autopilot in place of its existing remote operation control system.

italian solar uav

Turin Polytechnic University's all electric UAV. Turin Polytechnic photograph.

The all-electric UAV concept was initially developed under the former European Commission HeliNet programme and is now being advanced as a parallel effort to the European Commission's Environmentally Friendly Inter-City Aircraft powered by a fuel cell (ENFICA-FC) project.

That initiative, launched in October 2006, is aiming to develop an all-electric aircraft using a fuel cell as the primary energy source. European Commission funding worth €2.9 million ($4.1 million) has been provided under the Sixth Framework Programme with partner contributions taking the projects total budget up to €4.5 million.

ENFICA-FC plans to fly a Jihlaven Airplane Rapid 200 two-seater light plane converted to operate using all-electric propulsion within two years, and develop designs for a 12-16 seat all-electric commuter aircraft. Turin Polytechnic heads the project, with other consortium members including Israel Aerospace Industries, Evektor, Metec, Air Products, Enigmatex, Infocosmos, and Intelligent Energy. Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic and the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium are also involved.

The HeliNet project had proposed developing a solar and fuel cell-powered high-altitude long-endurance UAV, designated HeliPlat, for use in environmental monitoring roles, with funding commencing in 1999 for three years. That project resulted in a design concept for a HALE UAV capable of carrying payloads of up to 150kg.