The Airbus Zephyr S has set a new flight endurance record for an aircraft without refuelling. The initial production model of the European company’s High Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS) system took of from a location in Arizona on July 11 and remained airborne for 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes. This was the longest continuous flight with a HAPS system yet, breaking the previous record of 14 days, 22 minutes and eight seconds set back in 2010 by a previous iteration of the Zephyr.
Airbus did not disclose the location of the flight, but putting the aircraft’s call sign (Kelleher, after its designer, the late Chris Kelleher) into flight tracking apps showed it to be operating near Yuma.
The flight aimed to demonstrate the capabilities of this ultraflightweight, solar-powered aircraft. Sophie Thomas, Head of the Zephyr programme, told AIR International: “[The company is] deflighted with the system’s performance …We see the current system as being capable of endurance of over 100 days. We think that’s a game-changer in terms of ofering persistence.”
Airbus characterises the Zephyr as “not quite an aircraft and not quite a satellite, but incorporating aspects of both”. The system is designed to operate at an average altitude of 70,000ft, far above weather and air traic, with its solar technologies enabling it to remain airborne and provide persistent defence and security capabilities such as maritime surveillance. The system’s long endurance is also seen as ideal for Zephyr to serve as a communications relay.
The Zephyr S has a 25m-wide (82ft) wingspan and weighs less than 75kg (165lb); the ‘S’ in its designation stands for single tail. Airbus is working on a larger Zephyr T variant with a twin tail designed to carry a higher payload.
Airbus has opened a HAPS production facility (also named after Chris Kelleher) in Farnborough and is close to opening an operating base at Wyndham in Western Australia. Thomas conirmed the latter site will be ready in August: “We expect to be conducting flights from there later this year and then enduring from that location. It will be our first global operating base.”
The UK Ministry of Defence is the initial customer for the Zephyr, but Thomas said the system is also applicable to civil operators for tasks such as environmental survey and providing broadband internet connectivity over large regions.
Other companies are developing HAPS systems, but Thomas said Airbus has an advantage: “We stand out because we’re lying; we’ve got a proven, flight-tested capability. It’s the maturity of the product, but you need a production facility and capability, an operational site from where customers want to ly. It’s the whole ecosystem that Airbus brings.” Mark Broadbent