Qinetiq is to build a solar-powered high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned air vehicle for Belgian space systems company Verhaert as part of an £11 million ($20 million) Earth observation system being developed for the Flemish Institute for Technical Research (VITO).

The three-day endurance Mercator aircraft will be a slightly larger derivative of Qinetiq’s Zephyr 3 solar electric HALE UAV, which underwent extensive flight tests this year at Australia’s Woomera weapons range.

Qinetiq says the deal is expected to be signed this month. The aircraft will have a 16m (52ft) wingspan and a weight of 27kg (60lb), including a 2kg Earth observation payload.

First flights are planned for mid-2006, with the aircraft optimised for flight at 60,000ft. The hybrid solar-electric propulsion system will use a lithium-hybrid battery for night flights. The payload is carried at the end of a 1m-long boom projecting from the front of the wing. A balloon will lift the UAV to altitude or the vehicle will make a human-assisted powered launch from a runway.

Source: Flight International