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.

East of Africa: ToughStuff (w/ video)

The idea for ToughStuff came to Adriaan on a trip to his home in the Netherlands, between stints of working with charities and NGO’s in Africa for fifteen years.

He was in the garden, inspecting a cheap outdoor lamp that had solar panels built in to the top of the plastic. The light would automatically recharge a set of internal batteries during the day, and have enough power to stay illuminated throughout the night.

He thought, if the developed world could be using this technology to light our gardens, then why can’t this same equipment be used as a primary light source for the most needy people in the world?

After few years of research and development, ToughStuff International was born.

Okay, pause for a brief disclaimer: I need to say that I wouldn’t usually devote an entire article to write up a commercial enterprise. But I wholeheartedly believe in ToughStuff’s approach. It’s one of the few things I’ve seen that has the potential to change the face of the developing world in multiple ways…

The truck we’re in is full to the brim; six grown men and a load of lamps, panels, batteries and merchandising material. I’m with a team of salesmen that ToughStuff has assembled to begin promoting the products on foot from Antananarivo to Toliara in Southern Madagascar.

Through broken French and English, I find out that sales team has come from all walks of life; a couple of university students, a brewery advertising manager, an auto mechanic…they are excited to be working for the company, and excited to get out of the city for a few days.

We makes stops in small villages, where green hills and blue sky meet streaks of bright red dirt. The sales team enthusiastically shows off the lamps and panels to owners of small roadside shops. In every location, a crowd immediately forms around the salesmen.

People are instantly intrigued by the futuristic looking products; they’ve seen solar power on the roofs of big buildings, but are amazed to have it in their hands, at a price ($20) that’s still considered an investment, but within reach.

The shop owners write their names and phone numbers down in dusty booklets. Some of the more wealthy business owners discuss the potential of buying large sets of lamps and renting them to individual consumers. I suddenly see the brilliance of ToughStuff’s business model, in that there are theoretically 1.4 billion customers worldwide that desperately need this product; not something that many startups can claim.

A hundred miles outside of the capital, we stop to check in with a few customers that received prototype units. The first house we visit is a two level brick, mud, and thatch structure that belongs to a farmer and carpenter named Regice. Outside the house, six or seven children are playing with a metal hoop that they push along with a stick. The goal appears to be to get the hoop to roll by using the stick to nudge it along, tapping the left and right edges to keep it upright.

Regice makes horse-drawn carts for a living, and tells us that each cart takes him about one month to build. Prior to using the ToughStuff lamp, he used kerosene lamps at home and in his shed, which would cost about 20 cents a day to refill. He’s extremely happy about using the LED lamp, because it’s free to use and so easy to operate that his kids charge the lamp for him. He now buys food and invests in his carpentry business with the money that would have been spent on kerosene.

He shows us that he keeps the solar panel mounted on the roof, with the small cord dangling on to the balcony to charge the lamp during the day. The sales team brings out an adapter that’s just been released which utilizes the solar panel to charge a range of mobile phones. Regice immediately agrees to buy one, so that he doesn’t have to walk to town and pay to charge his phone.

Regice is more fortunate than most of the neighboring villagers. He’s able to purchase things like the lamp and cell phone connector because he operates a stable business. But for most, $20 per lamp and panel is still a major stretch – something that Adriaan hopes to whittle down as ToughStuff takes off.

We continue our Southbound journey and the sun begins to set over large, monolithic rock formations to the West. I think about the enthusiasm that I witnessed over the course of the day; the villagers we spoke to have so little, but yet were so excited at the chance to have a reliable, clean, and renewable source of light.

Find out more about ToughStuff on their website –