While the Solar Impulse plane is lumbering across the world’s skies showing that solar-powered flight is possible—albeit slow, other companies are getting ready to use solar power in their ariel vehicles pretty quickly. Case in point, Airbus just signed a contract with MicroLink to provide its multijunction solar sheets for Airbus’ Zephyr S, a high altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS).
The HAPS is a type of unmanned ariel vehicle that can provide services similar to that of a satellite. Thin-film solar power is an ideal energy source for this type of vehicle because it doesn’t need to return to earth for refueling on a regular basis. Coupled with lightweight, high-efficiency batteries it can stay aloft for weeks at a time.
According to MicroLink the Zephyr aircraft holds world records in terms of longevity aloft and altitude. It’s stayed aloft for more than 14 days and flown to more than 70,000 feet. The new model Zephyr S has a 25 meter wingspan, is 30% lighter and can carry 50% more batteries than its predecessor. “The Zephyr S is designed to fly continuously for over a month before having to land. The vehicle can then be refurbished and redeployed,” MicroLink explained. The plane can carry heavier payloads like surveillance and communications equipment.
"Our collaboration with MicroLink Devices in the development stages and in the current production program has enabled the latest generation of Zephyr HAPS, which is a critical addition to our extensive portfolio of space and defense products,” said Steve Whitby, Airbus’ head of HAPS Business Development. “Combining Airbus and MicroLink Devices engineering expertise has proven to be a successful platform for our on-going success."
The new plane will be powered by MicroLink’s flexible solar sheets. They provide 1 kilowatt of power per kilogram and more than 250 watts per square meter, the company said. Such solar panels are unique in that they’re flexible and lightweight. They can easily be molded to the surface they’re placed on—like a wing.
"We are extremely pleased to have developed a relationship with the Zephyr team four years ago and to transition our high-performance solar sheet development efforts into a production program,” said Noren Pan, MicroLink Devices CEO. “We are also thankful to Airbus for their purchase order and the confidence they have in MicroLink's solar sheet technology and manufacturing ability. We know of no other flexible solar sheet that offers a comparable performance in terms of power and weight and reliability under a wide temperature range.”
Airbus has already secured an order for two of Zephyr S’ from the British Ministry of Defence. So solar planes will be in the sky soon, you’ll just never see them.Tweet