The US military is testing the British Airbus Zephyr stratospheric drone

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The remarkable Airbus Zephyr drone was designed for missions in the stratosphere, where, thanks to solar panels, it should be able to fly without landing for a very long time. Such aircraft can observe large areas from high altitudes or transmit communications, making them useful in both military and civilian applications.

With a wingspan of 25 meters, the Zephyr is quite large. Its weight, which is less than 75 kilograms, is surprisingly small considering its size. It has an electric drive with two propeller motors.

Roughly a third of the drone’s weight is made up of advanced Ampirus lithium-ion batteries, which are supplemented by gallium-arsenic solar cells that cover the upper parts of the drone. The Zephyr flies high above the clouds and other planes, so the Sun shines on it all day. It operates at an altitude of around 21 kilometres, while its current height record is over 23 kilometres.

The drone was originally built by QinetiQ. Zephyr currently belongs to Airbus. It is designed to fly autonomously and virtually indefinitely. It should last in the stratosphere for months. It works similarly to a geostationary satellite, but at a much lower cost.

What can Zephyr do?

When Zephyr is in the stratosphere, it can observe an area 20 by 30 kilometers in detail with its entire array of instruments. Or it can provide communications coverage equivalent to 250 cell phone towers.

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The US Army’s Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing/Space (APNT/Space) Cross-Functional Team (CFT) is currently conducting stratospheric experiments with the Zephyr at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. As part of these tests, they verify the capacity, lifetime and functionality of the batteries, along with the operation of the solar panels and other functions of the drone.

For the first flight in this year’s tests, the Zephyr took off on June 15 (2022). On this flight he achieved a number of firsts. For example, he flew in international airspace for the first time and flew over water for the first time.

It also broke its own record for non-stop flight from 2018, when it was in the air for 26 days. On July 22 this year, the Zephyr had already been flying for 36 days and was still flying. It will land soon, but not for power, but because it will fly over the Pacific in the coming weeks to test equipment for military missions.



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