LONDON — Britain's Ministry of Defense will acquire three Airbus-built, solar-powered UAVs that fly on the edge of space will be acquired by Britain’s Ministry of Defence, the company said Wednesday.

The Zephyr 8 machines being supplied to the British by Airbus Defence and Space will be capable of flying at a height of about 70,000 feet for up to three months, giving military customers the ability to conduct persistent surveillance or provide communications relays roles at a fraction of the cost of satellites or manned aircraft and for significantly longer than other unmanned platforms, company executives said.

The British will use be using the potentially game-changing UAV’s for operational capability demonstrations, including flying two of the machines at the same time, Zephyr  business development leader Steve Whitby told reporters during a briefing.

The two sides have inked a memorandum of understanding and are in final negotiations to complete the deal, Whitby said.

Deliveries of the machines, which Airbus call High Altitude Pseudo-Satellites, are expected to take place over the next 15 months to 18 months. The British have already conducted flight tests on an earlier, smaller version of the Zephyr they acquired from Airbus.

The Zepyhr holds the world record for flight duration of 14 days and Whitby said the vehicle comfortably outperforms solar-powered rivals

The Zephyr's batteries are fueled by the sun during the day and stored energy is used during the night to power the machine's two propellers.

The new Zephyr 8 with its 28-meter wingspan covered in solar panels is expected to fly for the first time next summer and is capable of carrying a 5-kilogram surveillance or communications payload. A larger and better performing variant is already on the drawing board. Known for the moment as Zepyhr 9, the vehicle could be ready for flight in about two-and-a-half years, said Airbus executives.

The Zephyr vehicle is likely to figure in the work the MoD is doing to update its aging ISTAR asset base as part of the strategic defense and security review expected to be published by the end of the year. Whitby said the British were one of several nations looking at the capabilities offered in the defense and security sectors.

Airbus is discussing with Singapore various launch and landing options for Zephyr including the use of an "enormous barge."  The two sides are also looking at possible joint development of a Zephyr-specific maritime radar.

The company is also in discussions with the German military and police about studying the communications capabilities of Zephyr and is engaged with the US Department of Defense and other agencies investigating possible use of the vehicle.

Zephyr was originally developed by British company QinetiQ before Airbus purchased the program.

Email: achuter@defensenews.com