LONDON — Less than 24 hours after an Airbus Defence and Space executive briefed reporters here that the company had a deal with the British Ministry of Defence to supply three solar-powered surveillance UAVs capable of flying at the edge of space, both sides were denying any such agreement existed.

Veteran executive Steve Whitby, the lead business development executive on the Zephyr solar-powered UAV unmanned air vehicle program, said Wednesday that Sept 9 the Defence Ministry was purchasing the first three of a new variant of the machine, known as the Zephyr 8. He said final negotiations were underway and later said a memorandum of understanding was in place.

Defense News reported Wednesday that yesterday a sale was in place subject to final negotiations. Now, however, both sides are saying Whitby got ahead of himself, and no deal exists at this time for what Airbus calls a high-altitude pseudo satellite.

"The situation is that no decisions have been taken as to whether the MoD is intending to investigate the military utility of High-Altitude Pseudo Satellites," a spokesman for the MoD said.

The spokesman said there was no memorandum of understanding in place.

The Defence Ministry was asked for a statement ahead of the story being published but was unable to respond in time.

"We would like to clarify our position following the recent media briefing: We have ambitions, and are expecting to secure contracts for Zephyr in the near future. But no contracts are in place with the UK MoD, or Singapore or Germany."

Whitby said at the briefing that contracts were in place with Germany and Singapore for Zephyr-related work but that was later corrected by Airbus

It's possible a deal for the Zephyr 8's could emerge following the publication of the strategic defense and security review later this year. Government thinking on future air ISTAR capabilities are expected to figure significantly in the review.

Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne pointed up the possibilities for platforms like Zephyr in a recent interview with Defense News.

"As you go closer to space there are innovative opportunities that are being considered as part of SDSR ranging from things not yet into production to things that are," he said

The Zephyr 8 machines will be capable of flying at around 70,000 feet for up to three months, giving military and civil customers the ability to conduct persistent surveillance or establish communications relays at a fraction of the cost of satellites or manned aircraft and significantly longer than other unmanned platforms.

The British will use the three UAVs for operational capability demonstrations, including flying two of the machines at the same time, Whitby told reporters.

Deliveries of the machines for the British are expected to take place over the next 15 to 18 months and the first test flight is scheduled for 2017, he said. The British have conducted flight tests on an earlier, smaller version of the Zephyr they acquired from Airbus.

The UAV 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 the 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 up to 5 kilograms of surveillance or communications payload.

An even larger and better performing variant is on the drawing board. Known for now as Zephyr, the vehicle could be ready to fly in about two-and-a-half years, said Airbus executives.

The Zyphyr high-altitude, long-endurance 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 in discussions with Singapore over studying 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 involved with the German military and police in studying the communications capabilities of Zephyr and is also engaged with the US Department of Defense and other agencies in investigating possible use of the vehicle.

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


Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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