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Zephyr Continues to Ascend – Inside Unmanned Systems


Ultimately, Airbus executives said, Zephyr can offer a number of special advan- tages over traditional satellites—even as the systems work together to maximize capabilities.

First, Down explained, Zephyr will be cheaper to send aloft. “If you think simplis- tically about the fact that to launch a satel- lite takes a jolly big rocket full of fuel and so forth, it’s going to cost you a lot in terms of logistics to make it happen,” he said. “That’s quite a tricky proposition. We don’t launch rockets in very many places on the planet.”

Flying closer to the ground gives Zephyr some accuracy advantages, including as a surveillance platform. “Where a new, very high resolution satellite typically can offer about 30 centimeters of resolution,” Down said, “the Zephyr OPAZ payload can shoot pictures at 18 centimeter resolution, mean- ing it can distinguish objects as small as 18 square centimeters, about the size of a plate. Last summer, the Zephyr team shot 20,000 pictures during one test f light.”

As with other HAPS vehicles, latency also would be lower than a satellite’s, mak- ing Zephyr easier to use as a “mobile tower” for cell phone and 5G communications. A Deutsche Telekom white paper notes that the communications lag with Zephyr would be less than 10 milliseconds round trip, compared to 600-700 milliseconds for a geo-orbital satellite. That makes Zephyr a good potential alternative to cellphone towers in areas with poor infrastructure or rugged terrain, or places that have been disrupted by a disaster.

That said, satellites can stay in orbit even longer than today’s HAPS vehicles, and can form large-scale, large footprint constellations.

Consequently, Down said, “Zephyrs are complementary to satellites. It is not a question of using one or the other; together they provide a mesh network—whether that is for EO [earth orbit] or connectivity.

“To complement satellite capabilities,” Down continued, “Zephyr can actually land and be reconfigured, and take off again and go off and perform a different mission.”

Roser Roca-Toha, head of UAS marketing at Airbus Defence and Space and secretary of the HAPS Alliance board, agreed. “I don’t want to say it’s a one-size-fits-all,” she added. “But we have the capability to adapt where the capacity is needed in any of the current infrastructure, whether terrestrial, drone or satellite.”

Down: “They are designed to work together.”


In the future, even Zephyr landing and taking off may be optional. Down envi- sions being able to launch a fleet when weather conditions are right and then “effectively park Zephyrs in the strato- sphere in what we’re terming a ‘HAPS park,’ which gives us a great deal of op- erational f lexibility. You can traverse the globe very quickly indeed—which is an interesting, different method of operating airplanes.”

And by “park,” Down means “park.” Unlike conventional atmospheric aircraft, the system is designed so solar cells can charge the aircraft’s batteries enough to keep it aloft in the stratosphere through the night. The Zephyr’s current record flight is almost 26 days; Airbus engineers are shooting for 100 days of nonstop flight and they’re aiming for more.

For now, however, Airbus’s HAPS offering is still a work in progress. “We are not yet at the point of full industrialization,” Roca-Toha said, “as we are still testing and defining this new capability, working with our customers to operationalize the stratosphere. We are ad- vancing at pace with the flight trials, we be- lieve that we need still a couple of years before we enter into serial commercial operations.”

But this hasn’t stopped Airbus from leav- ing a commemorative mark on the strato- sphere. On one of this year’s flights, Zephyr engineers wrote “Airbus” in the sky, direct- ing the aircraft via 250-plus waypoints. This was more than marketing, Roca-Toha said. “It was actually also a demonstration of the precision that Zephyr can have.”

Zephyr’s schedule for next year is not finalized. Yet, Roca-Toha predicted, “it’s going to be a very busy one.”

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