A SOLAR-POWERED plane which can fly continuously for five years may seem like a flight of fancy.
But a Newcastle University team has the job of turning the vision into reality.
Led by Professor Barrie Mecrow, the team has secured a major contract with leading defence technology and security company QinetiQ to help create the US-based Boeing SolarEagle.
Joint funded by the US Government and Boeing, SolarEagle will be a 120-metre wing span, unmanned plane able to remain in the air for five years, feeding back data from the skies.
It is the job of the Newcastle University team to develop a motor that will be four times more efficient than a conventional aircraft engine while being able to operate at temperatures lower than the coldest Arctic winter.
Prof Mecrow, head of the university’s Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives, said: “This plane will have the longest wingspan ever – the only thing that comes close is the Airbus A380 with a wingspan of around 75m. This is more than half as big again – more than the length of a football pitch.
“Newcastle University has a long-standing reputation for its world-leading research into the design and development of specialist motors and electronics but this will still be a big challenge for us.
“In general, the more powerful a motor, the bigger and heavier it is. In this case, the motor will have to be powerful enough to drive the propellers to get this gigantic plane off the ground while still being super-efficient and incredibly lightweight.
“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.”
This is the second time the team has played a part in making aviation history.
Last year they played a key role in the development of QinetiQ’s Zephyr – a much smaller unmanned aerial vehicle which successfully completed a world record two weeks of non-stop flight powered only by energy from the sun.
Smashing all endurance records for an unpiloted vehicle, the Zephyr was the culmination of years of work by some of the world’s most talented engineers including the team from Newcastle University.
The aircraft is being developed under the Vulture II programme, which will culminate with a demonstration flight in 2014 but the Newcastle team hopes to have the first two prototypes of the plane’s motors ready to test in six months.
Prof Mecrow said: “At Newcastle we are building on half a century of experience that grew around heavy industry.
“Today, more than half of all electrical energy generated in the world is used to drive motors and we are working on ways of making this process ever more efficient.”