Airbus has completed successful flight tests of its solar-powered Zephyr S unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), reaching almost three weeks in the air and breaking its altitude record.
The final High Altitude Platform System (HAPS) touched down on 13 September in Arizona after completing six flights – four low level and two stratospheric flights.
As part of Airbus’ aim to become carbon neutral, the Zephyr was designed to remain in the stratosphere for months at a time, aiding military and commercial capabilities.
Each of the stratospheric flights flew for around 18 days, totalling more than 36 days of flight in the campaign, proving its “operational reality” for future customers.
The UAV managed to also reach an absolute altitude 76,100 feet – setting a new world record.
James Gavin, Future Capability Group head at Defence Equipment & Support, the procurement arm of the UK Ministry of Defence, said the flights took a step towards “operationalising the stratosphere”.
Stratospheric flights are considered time efficient and smoother as the air is thinner in a higher altitude, which decreases turbulence.
“Working with Airbus and the Zephyr team during the 2021 flight campaign, significant progress has been made towards demonstrating HAPS as a capability,” Gavin added.
Airbus received three orders of its Zephyr 8 in 2016 from the Minister of Defence in the UK, now a critical part of its military industry, according to Major General Rob Anderton-Brown, director of Capability and MDI Change Programme at Strategic Command.
“[Zephyr is] informing the development of new concepts and ways of enabling military operations, particularly in the context of multi-domain integration,” Anderton-Brown said.
The aerospace giant said Zephyr has the potential to aid disaster management, surveillance, trace environmental changes and communications to remote regions.
The UAV has a wingspan of 25 metres and weighs less than 75 kilograms, adopting a payload coverage of 20 to 30 kilometres for surveillance.
The UAV carries an Optical Advanced Earth Observation system for Zephyr (OPAZ) to increase its situational awareness, Airbus said.
Airbus says sensors located in the stratosphere can direct changes in the environment more precisely.
The aircraft completed its maiden flight in 2018 in Arizona when it remained in the air for almost 26 days by recharging its batteries mid-flight.
“The flight campaign had a clear customer focus – to demonstrate how Zephyr could be used for future operations, flying outside of restricted airspace and over airspace shared with commercial air traffic,” Airbus said.