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With so many factors that could affect performance (wind, visibility range (amount of light), angle of the sun, etc.), how do they accurately test solar aircraft flight time? Any tips for doing my own experiment for a small solar RC plane (vs non-solar of same type)?

Thanks for any help!

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    $\begingroup$ Well, first you have to define what you mean by "testing efficiency" - what criteria matter to you? Flight time on a single charge/tank of fuel? Recharge/Refuel time? Cost? Speed? All of these are things that have trade-offs, so you need to decide what each is worth, and then you can design experiments to test them... $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Oct 3 '14 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ just flight-time for a single charge (ohers may come later) $\endgroup$ – Keychain1 Oct 3 '14 at 3:51
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Usually when test results are potentially affected by many factors, standard test conditions are defined. When tests are performed under these standard conditions, the results can be compared between products.

Since these standard conditions rarely exists in nature, testing under standard conditions is not possible. Instead, a test programme is developed that tests under a number of non standard conditions to identify the effect of individual factors and correct for that. In addition, components of the system under test can often be tested in an isolated controlled environment. In this way, standard conditions can be achieved for individual components and the effect of deviations for the standard conditions can be determined as well.

For the example of a solar aircraft, the efficiency of the solar panels could be determined independent of the aircraft. The same holds for the battery, the engine, the propeller and other components that the propulsion system may depend on. Not only the performance under standard conditions can be determined, but also under non-standard conditions.

The power requirements of the aircraft under a range of conditions can be determined by test flights. This could involve horizontal cruise flight segments at various speeds, altitudes and temperatures, and also gliding tests.

The maximum achievable flight time under standard and non-standard conditions can then be calculated from the results of all the acquired test results, without ever having flown under these standard conditions.

For validation of the methodology used, a test flight can be done do determine the actual flight time under non-standard conditions. When the results of the test flight agree with the calculated flight time under the same non-standard conditions, one can assume that the methodology is correct.


For you own RC plane such a test programme is probably out of scope. A simple way to gather some data is to perform two flights with the same aircraft. Both time start with a full charge (I assume there is a battery involved). Test how long the flight last with the solar panels. For the second flight, disconnect the panels and see how long the flight last then. You now know how much the solar panels contribute in terms of power production. Then fly with the non-solar plane and see how long that lasts. It will probably last longer than the solar plane with the panels disconnected because it doesn't have to carry the extra weight of the panels. This way you learn what the addition of solar panels costed in terms of flight efficiency.

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    $\begingroup$ For a small RC craft, I'd expect flying with just the fully-charged battery will actually be more efficient than a fully-charged battery + solar panel. The extra induced drag + parasitic drag is probably worse than not having the panels at all. It usually takes rather large aircraft operating with next to zero payload and at very low speeds for solar-powered flight to achieve more mileage or flying time than the same aircraft sans the panels. The ones I've seen have the wing span of an airliner and can barely lift the pilot. Solar power density isn't as much as many seem to think it is. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 16 '15 at 19:59
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For large solar aircraft, it is advantageous to be flying above the clouds, for predictable and uninterrupted solar performance.

There are flight test areas (airfields with a large-enough flight range) where meteorological conditions and test availability allows companies to fly several sorties and calibrate their flight-performance parameters. Spain, Sweden, Canada and USA has these sites. The FAA has a list of US test sites on the web.

Solar-powered aircraft have constant weight and CG which makes the tests much simpler than other fuel-powered aircaft.

For personal flight tests, flying a circular or figure-8 pattern at a constant altitude, with as little turbulence as possible, for a full charge, would reveal the necessary information for flight times. But if the flight takes longer than half an hour, it would be best to have the autopilot fly. So that you could get the piloting efforts (and errors) out of the equation.

Of course, time of the day and day of the year are important parameters but you can calculate their effects on your solar panels by hand.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure you meant to say that flying above the clouds is a reason for predictable performance? $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Apr 24 '15 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ thank you @raptortech97, corrected the sentence, it was a misexplanation. hope it's better now. $\endgroup$ – Gürkan Çetin Apr 25 '15 at 3:58

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