A solar-powered spy drone developed by Airbus Defence and Space recently broke the record for the longest continuous flight. The unmanned aircraft is known as Zephyr, a unique, re-usable solar-powered plane, providing a broad scope of applications, ranging from military surveillance, border patrol missions, communications, forest fire detection and monitoring.
According to the press release, the aerospace company recently announced the successful flight test of its first production aircraft of the Zephyr programme, the new Zephyr HAPS: a High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite, which can autonomously fly for months at a time, combines the persistence of a satellite with the flexibility of a UAV. To achieve extended flight duration, the spy drone harnesses the sun’s rays, running exclusively on solar power, and flies above weather (clouds, jet streams) and regular air traffic.
After taking off on 11th July in Arizona, Zephyr S stayed airborne for 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes. The flight smashed the previous record — set by a legacy Zephyr prototype several years ago, achieving then more than 14 days continuous flight.
According to Flightradar24, the precise location of the test seemed to be around the Yuma Proving Grounds, an Army facility and one of the biggest military installations in the world. Judging by the flight path, pilots and or the onboard autonomous flight control system had a creative touch as they spelled out “Airbus” during the test.
The Airbus drone flies at an altitude of 65,000 feet, entirely above the Earth’s weather systems and commercial air traffic.
“The only civil aircraft that used to fly at this altitude was Concorde, and only the famous military U2 and SR-71 Blackbird could operate at similar levels,” the aerospace company said.
The flimsy-looking aircraft was constructed at a facility in Farnborough, England, with a wingspan of 25-meter (82 feet) and weight of roughly 75 kilos (165 pounds).
Airbus states that the Zephyr is “filling a capability gap between satellites and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) by providing an affordable, adaptable and persistent solution.” The company mentions the spy drone has the ability “to continuously evolve with advances in payload technology.” As far as sensors, it seems the drone could take full advantage of the next generation of payloads including high-resolution imaging and high bandwidth communication systems.
Zephyr Footage: 15cm resolution from 60,000 feet altitude
“This very successful maiden flight represents a new significant milestone in the Zephyr programme, adding a new stratospheric flight endurance record which we hope will be formalized very shortly. We will in the coming days check all engineering data and outputs and start the preparation of additional flights planned for the second half of this year from our new operating site at the Wyndham airfield in Western Australia,” said Jana Rosenmann, Head of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Airbus.
With a successful test flight and series production of the Airbus Zephyr, it now makes sense why Facebook in June abandoned its internet drone program.
Video: Airbus Zephyr Solar High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite Maiden Flight