FARNBOROUGH, England — With the Farnborough air show opening in searing temperatures it was perhaps appropriate that Airbus Defence and Space used the first day to announce two program milestones with it’s Zephyr solar powered unmanned air vehicles.
Airbus announced July 16 that series production of the Zephyr S high altitude pseudo-satellite had begun at a new facility sited about 200 yards from where Farnborough 2018 was being held.
Just as important in terms of proving the solar powered vehicle’s operational capabilities, Airbus revealed the first of three Zephyr S vehicles ordered by the British Ministry of Defence made its maiden flight from a base in Arizona last week.
Zephyr, which operates on the edge of space, already holds the world duration record at 14 days. Nigel Chandler, the head of sales for the solar electric powered vehicles, says that recent improvements will see the vehicle beat 100 days.
To date the Zephyr family has racked up over 1000 flying hours and their experience far exceeds any rival operators.
Earlier this year BAE Systems announced it was collaborating on a rival solar powered high altitude, long endurance vehicle designed by Farnborough-based company Prismatic. First flight of a vehicle known as the PHASA-35 is slated for next year.
The MoD here has invested some £13 million (U.S. $17.21 million) in securing the vehicles for operational concept demonstration work. The latest S version of the Zephyr family were acquired by the British military in a deal signed in 2016.
The arrangement will see the vehicles owned by the MoD but operated by Airbus.
Nobody at Airbus was saying what role the British envisions for the Zephyr, but the machines have previously been touted in media as capable of providing surveillance or communications relay capabilities, possibly for special forces.
The third vehicles ordered by the MoD were visible and complete on the floor of the new Airbus production facility.
Previous test and prototype versions of Zephyr were built at a research and development site nearby.
Dirk Hoke, the CEO of Airbus Defence and Space said the official opening of the facility “represents a significant milestone in the Zephyr program. The facility is home to the world’s leading high-altitude pseudo satellite and will be a showcase location, linking to our operational flight bases around the world. …Today we have created a new future for stratospheric flight.”
Chandler said that by the end of this year up to seven aircraft will have been built at the series production site. Next year that number should rise to 10 and could eventually be amped up to 30 if demand warrants it.
Some of the Zephyr production will go to Airbus itself. Chandler said one of principle business opportunities is to use Zephyr as a managed service.
The service would offer launch and recovery, payload integration, piloting, airspace management and other requirements.
In future, Airbus will be flying Zephyr S from a new operating site at the Wyndham airfield in Western Australia. Airbus said it has chosen Australia as the first launch and recovery site for the Zephyr due mainly to its largely unrestricted airspace and reliable weather. The site will be operational from September this year with the first flights expected during October.
It’s not clear whether the British MoD will use the Australian site for some of its concept demonstration work.
Airbus has also developed a ground station in a box to allow operations to be conducted where customers have a requirement.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.