The solar-powered Zephyr UAV demonstrated the ability to conduct an extended flight during times of limited sunlight. (Airbus)
LONDON — Airbus’ Zephyr 7 solar-powered UAV has recorded an 11-day, non-stop flight in winter weather conditions, the company said Thursday.
The flight of the High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) system was undertaken in the last few weeks for the British Ministry of Defence while carrying a new, but unspecified, primary payload.
Airbus Defence and Space wouldn’t say where or when the test flight of the Zephyr 7 took place but did say the machine flew from a base in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Zephyr 7 flew at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet and for the first time used satellite communications to control and monitor the flight beyond line of sight of the ground station.
The flight was a breakthrough in terms of proving the year-round capability of the Airbus Zephyr, according to Chris Kelleher, the Airbus HAPS technical director.
“All previous long-duration flights have been carried out in the summer months when the longer days, shorter nights and better weather make flights significantly easier,” Kelleher said.
The flight was approved for controlled airspace, which required the involvement of the British Military Aviation Authority, the Type Airworthiness Authority and the Defence Equipment and Support organization’s unmanned aerial systems team.
As a result, Zephyr 7 became the first pseudo satellite to be assigned a military registration: PS001.
The solar powered aviation program was acquired by Airbus from QinetiQ last year after the British contractor, partly funded by the MoD, had pioneered development work on the concept for several years.
Zephyr uses solar panels mounted on the wing to charge a battery during the day that powers the aircraft at night.
The concept is attracting attention as the aircraft offers the potential to provide persistent surveillance and communications capabilities for many weeks at low cost.
Rivals include Boeing, which has a machine known as SolarEagle. A plan for Boeing to fly its SolarEagle demonstrator this year was abandoned for the time being.
The Boeing development program backed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under its Vulture program was downgraded in 2012 from a full-system flight demonstration technology program to a technology effort seeking advances in photovoltaics (solar collection) and energy storage systems, or solid fuel cells.
Google and Facebook have both acquired solar powered unmanned aircraft developers in recent months. The two companies hope that solar-powered drones will allow them to beam broadband Internet access to developing nations across the globe.
An Airbus spokesman said the Zephyr 7 had probably conducted its last flight ahead of the expected first flight of a more advanced version next spring.
Zephyr 8 will be slightly larger than the current model and feature an improved battery and other advances. ■