Qinetiq has unveiled plans to transition a slightly larger version of the Zephyr high-altitude long-endurance unmanned air vehicle into operational service for the US or UK militaries within two years.
To support the transition plans, the rapid prototyping specialist is in the process of selecting an industry partner to manage production of a "modestly" scaled-up operational aircraft, says Paul Davey, a Qinetiq business development director.
Meanwhile, the scaled-up aircraft with a slightly larger wingspan will be prepared for a round of flight tests starting in the second quarter next year, with the goal to demonstrate a week-long flight between 50,000ft (15,250m) and 60,000ft.
"The [main] difference is aimed at making more efficient with its use of power," Davey says. The new aircraft will also feature new winglets designed by Qinetiq to reduce drag.
The ultimate goal for the Zephyr project is to develop an operational aircraft capable of remaining aloft for up to three months with only 200W of on-board power available.
The 30kg (66lb) Zephyr has come far since it was launched in 2003. The hybrid solar- and battery-powered UAV was designed for the sole purpose of filming a potential world-record ascent by a high-altitude balloon by flying on a tether around the gondola.
The balloon project has since been scuppered, but the Zephyr has lived on to set its own world records.
Most recently, Zephyr completed an 82h 37min flight, breaking its own previous world record of 54h, set last year. Thin solar arrays mounted on the 18.2m wingspan powers the aircraft during the day and recharges the Sion Power-made lithium sulphur battery for use at night.
The US Department of Defense and the UK Ministry of Defence are jointly sponsoring the flight tests at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
Zephyr is designed to carry a 2kg payload for surveillance or communications, but is demonstrating a communications relay system.
The record-setting, three-day flight completed the series of flight tests scheduled for 2008, Davey says.