LONDON — A solar-powered unmanned aircraft operating on the edge of space is to provide British special forces and others with persistent surveillance capability, the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) has confirmed.
“We will make a major investment in a new generation of surveillance drones. These British-designed unmanned aircraft will fly at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere and allow us to observe our adversaries for weeks, providing critical intelligence for our forces,” Defence Minister Earl Howe told the House of Lords.
The SDSR itself also made a fleeting mention of the machine saying the machine would help provide special forces with high-altitude surveillance.
Although the vehicle wasn’t mentioned by name in the SDSR, Airbus Defence & Space executives said in September they had been talking to the Ministry of Defence for a while about a purchase of their Zephyr 8 machine.
At the time of the briefing one senior Airbus executive told reporters the company already had a memorandum of understanding to acquire three vehicles, although this was subsequently denied by the MoD and the company.
An Airbus spokesman on Nov. 26 declined to comment, beyond saying a contract had not been signed.
The Zephyr 8 is scheduled to fly for the first time next year, and the company is building three machines which are likely to end up with the MoD for operational-capability demonstrations, among other uses.
The MoD has previously helped fund demonstrations of earlier, smaller versions of what Airbus refers to as high-altitude pseudo satellites.
One of the earlier Zephyr versions holds the world record for flight duration of 14 days.
The Zephyr 8 has a 28-meter wingspan and will be capable of flying at around 70,000 feet for up to three months, giving military and security operators persistent communications relay and surveillance capabilities at a fraction of the cost of a satellite or manned aircraft.
Work is already underway on a bigger version of the vehicle.
Germany and Singapore are also interested in the capability, the Airbus executive said in September.
Zephyr was originally developed by the British defense company Qinetiq before Airbus purchased the program.