The European aerospace consortium Airbus announced that Zephyr drone set a flight record of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes.
The Zephyr drone, a High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS), developed by Airbus landed near Yuma, Arizona on August 14, after flying at an altitude above 70,000 feet continuously for 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes. It break the previous record held by older prototype of the Zephyr drone, which stayed airborne for 14 days in 2014. The drone was powered by electricity generated from solar panels on its wings during daylight. The drone was dependent on stored battery power during night and dropped to around 50,000 feet by morning. The altitude of flight was higher than regular air traffic, except military spy planes and well above any clouds and bad weather. With a wingspan of over 80 feet, the Zephyr weighs around 150 pounds, including a 15-pound payload. The new prototype has more efficient solar array and a more efficient propulsion system than the previous prototype. Airbus hopes that by carrying out tasks such as high-altitude photography and environmental monitoring for weeks or months at a time, new prototype will be a challenge for some of the commercial market for satellite launches into Earth’s orbit.
A typical rocket launch to put satellites into Earth’s orbit costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Therefore, Airbus thinks that Zephyr can do a better job at several tasks with less expanses compared to satellites. Moreover, Zephyr can be refitted on the ground and redeployed on different missions, whereas satellites are usually committed to only communications or environmental monitoring, which is carried out for several years. The drone can also provide internet connectivity to users on the ground. The high-altitude balloon-based internet experiments such as Project Loon from the X lab at Alphabet is a competition for Airbus’ Zephyr in the HAPS market. Airbus stated that high-flying drones such as Zephyr could be much more maneuverable and flexible in Earth orbit than high-altitude balloons and satellites. The report was published in Live Science on August 20, 2018.