A solar-powered aircraft built by Airbus broke the record for longest continuous flight this week. If the unmanned Zephyr S had stayed aloft for just three minutes longer, it would have flown for exactly 26 days.
By harnessing the sun’s rays, the drone was able to power its two propellers during the day and store power in its onboard battery unit to be used at night. At a cruising altitude of 70,000 feet, the aircraft flies well above the level of commercial airliners and inclement weather.
Engineers believe the Zephyr could one day be used to monitor the spread of wildfires and oil spills or communicate with the most unconnected parts of the world. Tech giants like Alphabet and Facebook have been researching solutions for delivering the internet to remote parts of the world by drone, though Facebook abandoned its drone-making operation earlier this year.
Airbus has been working on the Zephyr S since at least 2015, with this week’s flight smashing the previous endurance record of 14 days, set by another Zephyr prototype in 2010. Solar-powered drones could one day provide a cheaper and more-versatile alternative to the thousands of satellites currently orbiting the earth.
For now, Airbus has submitted its application to establish this as a new world record.