Solar plane lands after two-week flight

A week ago we reported on the Zephyr solar airplane flying nonstop for a week. Yesterday it landed safely after flying nonstop for two weeks, achieving the goal its designers set for it.

The unmanned drone runs on efficient solar cells along its wingspan that charge batteries to keep it running through the night. Sunny skies over Arizona helped boost its power. Engineers hope that it will be the first “eternal plane”, never having to land. Qinetiq, the UK defense firm that designed it and flew it over a US military base, said there was no need for it to land yesterday but that it had proven its worth and is now ready for production.

The US military is interested in using it for military purposes, but Qinetiq is also pointing up the plane’s scientific and commercial possibilities.

The previous endurance record for an unmanned drone was 30 hours, 24 minutes. A manned solar plane, the Solar Impulse, recently flew through the night on a 24-hour flight.

Photo courtesy Qinetiq.

Review: KiwiChoice U-Powered solar battery charger

Keeping your devices powered when traveling is often a challenge. On many trips, it involves finding a power outlet, on some trips you may need to resort to using a battery backup pack, but some destinations may even stretch your batteries to the limit.

On those trips, you’ll need to find alternative power sources – and one of the easiest to tap into is the sun.

The KiwiChoice U-Powered solar battery charger is exactly what you need in those situations. The U-Powered charger is several devices in one – a 2000mAh battery pack, a solar charger and a USB power kit.

The kit comes with everything you need for your gadgets – the unit itself, a carrying pouch, car charger, wall/AC charger, USB power cord and an assortment of power tips. With this arsenal of chargers, you can charge your gadgets off AC power, car power, battery power or solar power. The power tip assortment supports everything from mobile phones to the iPhone. With its mini and micro USB plugs, it covers almost every current phone on the market.

As an added bonus, the U-Powered even offers a very bright 3-LED flashlight. On the side of the U-Powered is its charging port – this port uses the included charging cable. Plug one end into a USB charger, like the included AC or DC chargers, or your computer. This charges the internal 2000mAh battery pack. Turn the cable around, and it is ready to charge your gadgets. On the back of the unit are three strong magnets, which means you can stick it on a metal object to keep it in sight of the sun.

The USB port on the U-Powered is a normal plug, so if none of the 11 power tips fit your device, simply use the USB cable it came with.

The 2000mAh battery pack is sufficient for at least one and a half full charges on most devices, up to two or three on smaller electronics like an iPod. The solar panels can recharge the batteries when they receive around 17 hours of direct sunlight, and a green LED light shows when the panels are working.

All in all, I really like this little charger. It is a compact battery charger when you just need some juice on the road, and it can recharge itself almost anywhere you go. The best part of this product is actually the price – at just $49.99 it is about $30 cheaper than most other solar/battery products. You’ll find the U-Powered at KiwiChoice, where you can also learn more about its features and device compatibility.

Solar plane flies nonstop for a week

We recently reported on the historic flight of the Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered plane to fly through the night. Now another barrier has been broken. The Zephyr solar plane has flown nonstop for seven days.

Unlike the Solar Impulse, which carried a pilot, the Zephyr is an unmanned drone built by the UK defense firm Qinetiq. Drones have seen extensive service in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years but are hampered by the need to return for refueling and thus losing sight of targets. Drones that never need to land have an obvious advantage. The civilian potential is obvious too, with researchers already thinking up applications for using them for scientific observation.

This development also marks another step forward for potential solar-powered commercial flight. The Zephyr has solar cells along its 22.5 meter (74 ft) wingspan that drive the propellers and fill batteries that are robust enough to power the plane from sunset to sunrise. Will we one day see solar-powered commercial flights? It may be a long way off, but considering the rapid pace of technological change, it’s unwise to say that anything is impossible.

The Zephyr is still in the air near the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and its support team plans to leave it flying for another week.

Solar-powered plane flies at night

An airplane that relies entirely on solar energy has flown for 24 hours straight, cruising along happily through the darkness and emerging into the dawn with three hours left in its batteries. Once the sun rose, of course, the batteries immediately began to recharge.

The Solar Impulse is the product of the same great minds that brought you the cuckoo clock–the Swiss! The entire wingspan is covered with 12,000 solar cells that power four electric engines. Average cruising speed is 70 km/hr (43.5 mph). You can see complete stats on the plane here.

The next step for the engineers is to make the next generation of the plane, one that will fly around the world by 2013. The Solar Impulse is not the first solar-powered airplane, only the first to complete a manned night flight. Scientists and engineers have been experimenting with solar-powered planes since the 1970s and manned flights since the 1980s. This new leap forward will add impetus to a field of study that has so far received little attention from the press.

While this technology is still in the experimental stage, the potential impact for the airline industry and the environment is obvious. Airline emissions pose a major environmental threat, and G8 leaders have called for a 50 percent reduction in airline emissions by 2050. That’s a tall order, but it looks like the Swiss have shown the way forward. Of course the Solar Impulse’s slow speed and small cockpit mean the age of solar-powered 747s is a long way off, think of it as the modern equivalent of the Wright Brothers plane. It was only a generation after Kitty Hawk that passengers started flying to international destinations.

Montreal Musts, to go: Get around by bike

Montreal has to be one of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet – certainly, at least, in North America. There are bike lanes throughout the city, and those using them don’t seem to have the fear found in other major metropolitan areas. Bike lanes are wide and bidirectional, so you don’t need to worry about clipping another rider.

If you want to become part of the cycling scene in Montreal, your first stop should be (obviously) to one of the many stores that rents bikes, unless you’ve brought your own. Prices vary with bike and location, but you shouldn’t have a problem finding the right saddle to carry you around. Also, be sure to rent a helmet. Though I saw quite a few cyclists riding around the city without them, it isn’t a good idea.

For those in need of a quick fix, take a look at the BIXI bikes located all over Montreal. They operate a bit like Zipcars in the United States. Pay with a credit card, and the bike is unlocked from the stand. Ride where you want to ride, and return the bike at the nearest BIXI stand. Your credit card will be charged based on how long you used the bike. This option has become incredibly popular, and it’s not unusual to see an empty BIXI stand (though this will probably become less likely when winter hits).

A nice touch, the BIXIs are environmentally friendly, powered by solar energy.


When you have your wheels, pedal over to La Maison des Cyclistes, across from Lafontaine Park. Grab some coffee or (smarter) some water in the front, which is a café. Maybe grab a snack for later. Then, at the back of the café, you’ll find a Velo Quebec location. In addition to carrying bicycling accessories, they have maps and information guides on hand to help you plan your route. Feel free to ask for help; Velo Quebec is committed to putting wheels on the road two at a time.

Finally, you’re ready to ride!

Whether you decide to stick to the bike paths or cut your own through Montreal, keep an eye on traffic (it’s always an issue), and follow the rules of the road. If nothing else, this is good cycling etiquette, and it’s something the locals do take seriously. With enough biking space offered, there’s no reason to break the rules. Be sure to take the bike path over by the port; the views are nothing short of spectacular.

Disclosure: Tourisme-Montreal picked up the tab for this trip, but my views are my own.