Aerospace giant Airbus has unveiled a solar-powered solution for stratospheric satellite-like services.
The Zephyr High Altitude Psuedo-Satellite (HAPS) was shown off for the first time at the Farnborough International Air Show this week, with Airbus revealing that a working prototype is currently somewhere in the sky above Arizona.
The Zephyr programme is Airbus’ attempt to lead the way in providing communications and image services from a level between conventional satellite systems and smaller unmanned aircraft.
The Zephyr runs exclusively on solar power and holds its altitude – around 70,000 feet – above the weather and other air traffic.
Airbus’ stratospheric ambitions
Speaking at Airbus’ Farnborough facility in England, where the project is in development, the company’s CEO of Defence and Space, Dirk Hoke, suggested that the technology will open up new avenues for reconnaissance.
“Today represents a significant milestone in the Zephyr programme. 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,” he said.
“The Zephyr S aircraft is demonstrably years ahead of any other comparable system and I am beyond proud of the Airbus team for their unrivalled success. Today we have created a new future for stratospheric flight”.
Filling a capability gap
The Zephyr has a wingspan of 25 meters and weighs less than 75kg. It is designed to offer what Airbus describes as “local persistence”: the ability to stay focused on a specific location while providing an area hundreds of miles wide with communications and observation services.
The key is that is can stay airborne for long periods of time. In fact, it currently holds the world record for the longest single flight: over two weeks uninterrupted.
For Airbus the pitch is simple. The Zephyr is not quite an aircraft, and not quite a satellite, but incorporates the best aspects of both: persistence and flexibility, respectively.
Facebook recently pulled the plug on a similar project, Aquila, which aimed to provide communications via a solar-powered drone flying at high altitude. The social media company cited “leading companies” in the aerospace sector working on similar technologies as the main reason for its decision.
Facebook also announced that it would be supporting Airbus’ programme in the future.
The potential applications for the technology range from commercial to military, and include supporting conservation efforts and providing situational awareness during natural disasters, alongside conventional reconnaissance.
“Zephyr will provide the potential to revolutionise disaster management, including monitoring the spread of wildfires or oil spills. It provides persistent surveillance, tracing the world’s changing environmental landscape and will be able to provide communications to the most unconnected parts of the world,” said Sophie Thomas, head of Zephyr at Airbus.
— Airbus Space (@AirbusSpace) July 16, 2018
Plus: Rolls-Royce unveils EVTOL vehicle
In related news, Rolls-Royce also unveiled a new concept at the Farnborough International Air Show this week: an electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) vehicle (pictured, below).
The tilt-wing concept design uses gas turbine technology to generate enough electricity to power six low-noise electric ‘propulsors’ (propulsion/lift motors).
Rolls-Royce claims the vehicle could carry five passengers at speeds up to 250mph for approximately 500 miles, would not require re-charging – as the battery is charged by the gas turbine – and would be able to use existing infrastructure, such as heliports and airports.
The design could be adapted for personal or public transport, logistics, and military applications, and could take to the sky as soon as the early 2020s, said the company.
Internet of Business says
The unveiling of Airbus’ Farnborough-based Zephyr programme coincided with the latest version of the craft setting off from Arizona in the US.
That flight is being supported by both the UK and US governments, with the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) first in line to find new applications for what Airbus describes as the Zephyr’s “innovative and potentially game-changing capability.”
Airbus’ Thomas stressed the importance of the company’s partnership with the MoD, saying that “Zephyr will bring new ‘see, sense, and connect’ capabilities to both military and commercial customers”.
With an existing network of satellites, the recent launch of Airbus Aerial, and a partnership with drone pilot network Dronebase, Airbus is now in a position to offer a broad range of aerial services.
However, the Arizona flight and Farnborough unveiling also coincided with another announcement from the company this week – one that was less welcome to the British government. Airbus chief Tom Enders slammed the prime minister’s Brexit proposals, saying that they are unravelling and putting 40 years of the company’s success at risk.
Airbus revealed that it is stockpiling essential parts for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and may leave the UK completely in such an eventuality.
The British government recently handed a $2 billion RAF contract to Airbus’ main rival: the US’ Boeing.
Additional reporting and analysis: Chris Middleton.