Airbus seeks partners for Zephyr 8 solar-powered aircraft demonstration

The Zephyr unmanned, solar-powered, high-altitude aircraft, developed by QinetiQ and now owned by Airbus, is being matured by the aerospace giant and is ready for payload demonstrations.

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Airbus Defence and Space announced on April 24 that it has launched the Zephyr 8 program to develop the next generation of the world-record setting Zephyr 7 system and invites potential customers and partners to undertake joint in-flight demonstrations of their payloads and applications.

Zephyr is a High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS). Running exclusively on solar power, manufactured of carbon fiber composites and flying at high altitudes above the weather and above conventional air traffic, it fills a capability gap between satellites and traditional unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). They allow operators to focus on a specific area of interest (which can be hundreds of miles wide) while providing it with satellite-like communications and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) services over long periods of time without interruption.

Zephyr was developed by U.K.-based aerospace and defense firm QinetiQ, which sold the Zephyr program to Airbus Defence and Space in 2013. The Airbus Group has been working on High Altitude Pseudo-Satellites (HAPS) since 2008. In 2013, it acquired the assets of the Zephyr and integrated all the key Zephyr staff into its HAPS organization. The Zephyr program successfully achieved several world records, including the longest flight duration without refuelling (14 days) as well as very high altitude flights (70,740 ft/21,561m).

Now an important part of the Airbus UAV business line, the  Zephyr 7 vehicle underwent final testing last year before the design of a complete suite of improvements for its next generation vehicle, the new Airbus Zephyr 8.

“I am delighted with the progress,” says Jens Federhen, Airbus HAPS Programme Manager. “We are now building the next generation of Airbus Zephyr that will allow customers to test  payloads and applications. We are ready and look forward to demonstrating its unique capabilities to customers in flight.”

Zephyr 7 is demonstrably years ahead of any other HAPS system and we spent last year analysing and designing exactly what we need to improve it,” explains Airbus Zephyr technical director Chris Kelleher. “We received permissions to fly and have flown Zephyrs in Australia, USA and Europe, and now have a well-defined flight and safety procedure that has already been accepted by four major test ranges.”

With the experience of UAVs, spacecraft, electronics, payload systems and secure communication available in the Zephyr team and Airbus Defence & Space, Federhen said that customers do not need to be worried about making payloads that are fit for the harsh stratospheric environment, “We can help them design, build and operate the payload if necessary, or provide a defined interface and then integrate the payload with the aircraft and fly it to test the payload, demonstrate the application and develop the flight procedures.”