Airbus Zephyr solar-powered stratosphere drone sets new altitude record

The European aerospace manufacturer Airbus has announced the successful completion test flight of its solar-powered Zephyr S stratosphere drone in the U.S. The final Airbus solar-powered High Altitude Platform System (HAPS) flight touched down on September 13 in Arizona, USA, ending the most ambitious and successful Zephyr flight campaign to date.

The Zephyr S has also set a new altitude record for an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) in its class, soaring to 76,100 feet in the sky over Arizona.

The test campaign carried out in 2021 consisted of six flights in total, four low-altitude test flights, and two stratospheric flights. The stratospheric flights flew for around 18 days each, totaling more than 36 days of stratospheric flight in the campaign. This adds a further 887 flight hours to the 2,435 stratospheric flight hours for Zephyr to date, marks significant progress for fixed-wing HAPS, and is a step towards making the stratosphere an operational reality.

Zephyr achieved 36 days of stratospheric flight, across two 2021 flights.
Zephyr achieved 36 days of stratospheric flight, across two 2021 flights. Credit: Airbus

Weighing in at 75 kg (165 lb), the Zephyr S is the largest of the Zephyr line with a wingspan of 28 meters (92 ft). The solar-powered stratosphere drone can carry a payload of can only carry a 5 kg payload; this is enough to support the company’s Optical Advanced Earth Observation system for Zephyr (OPAZ) payload for streaming Earth observation data. Besides, the aircraft remain aloft for up to 26 days without landing thanks to Amprius lithium-ion battery packs totaling 24 kg (53 lb). The batteries are charged during the day by thin, flexible, high-efficiency gallium-arsenide solar cells mounted on the wings.

During the flight, Zephyr can transmit internet signals to the military and civilians in case they do not have access to a cable connection. The device will provide the potential to revolutionize disaster management, including monitoring the spread of wildfires or oil spills. It provides persistent surveillance, tracing the world’s changing environmental landscape, and will be able to provide communications to the most unconnected parts of the world.

Typically, a series of satellites are used to provide a wireless global Internet connection, which is delivered to low-earth orbit using launch vehicles. Airbus has focused on a cheaper alternative that runs on electric motors and is therefore completely environmentally friendly.

“Working with Airbus and the Zephyr team during the 2021 flight campaign, significant progress has been made towards demonstrating HAPS as a capability. This summer’s activities represent an important step towards operationalizing the stratosphere,” said James Gavin, Future Capability Group Head at Defence Equipment & Support, the procurement arm of the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

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