SINGAPORE — The British Ministry of Defence purchased a solar-powered UAV capable of flying almost on the edge of space.
Two of the Zephyr 8 machines built by Airbus Defence and Space were acquired for operational concept demonstration work by the British, the MoD will announce Thursday.
Powered by the sun, the vehicle, known officially as a high-altitude pseudo-satellite, is capable of flying for more than a month at an altitude of between 65,000 feet and 70,000 feet.
The earlier Zephyr 7 holds the world record for 14 days continuous flight set in 2010. The aircraft charges its batteries from sunlight during the day. The new Zephyr 8 has a wingspan of 25 meters, is 30 percent lighter and can carry 50 percent more batteries than its predecessor.
An updated version of the UAV is already on the drawing board, Airbus executives told reporters during a briefing last year.
The executive said last year the MoD planned to buy three machines although only two have subsequently been ordered.
The deal marks the first sale of the Zephyr 8. The first vehicle is already under construction with a maiden flight scheduled for mid-2017, Airbus said in a statement.
Airbus said the precise purposes for which the MoD will use its Zephyrs have not been disclosed. Last November, the government's strategic defense and security review indicated the vehicle, which can undertake roles such as persistent surveillance and communications relay, would be part of a £2 billion (US $3.6 billion) equipment capability hike for special forces.
No contract value was given but Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne, answering a parliamentary question earlier this week, said the overall package was worth more than £10 million.
“The £10.6 million contract ... is for an operational concept demonstration rather than individual platforms, so unit costs are not held. Furthermore, as the Zephyr demonstrators will not be in service, they will not be based at a particular location and there will be no related support or through-life costs,” he told lawmakers.
“This contract will allow the UK to understand whether Zephyr can fulfill the requirement for a high-altitude persistent surveillance capability,” he said.
The Airbus executive said the German and Singaporean governments had expressed an interest in the machine.