Britain is to purchase two solar powered Zephyr 8 unmanned surveillance aircraft from Airbus.
Zephyr is unique aircraft that offers a satellite like capability to provide wide area surveillance and coverage at low cost, leading to it being designated HAPS (High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite) by the company. The aircraft is powered solely by the sun and flies above the weather autonomously for months. Airbus believe that Zephyr fills a capability gap between satellites and unmanned aircraft.
Designed and built in the UK, the aircraft carry small payloads that might consist of reconnaissance cameras or communications equipment. The MoD is expected to buy two Zephyrs initially.
Michael Fallon, secretary of state for defence, indicated the purchase the vehicles during a speech to the ADS Group, an umbrella organisation representing the aerospace, defence, security and space sectors.
It was reported at the time by many news outlets that the predecessor of the current Zephyr aircraft, the Zephyr 7, underwent testing with the Ministry of Defence in 2014. It reportedly reached an altitude of 70,000ft. It was also the first HAPS to receive a Military Aviation Authority registration, PS001.
The Zephyr aircraft, with its 28 meter wingspan, will be capable of taking a 5kg payload up to a height of about 70,000ft for up to three months, giving the United Kingdom the ability to conduct surveillance at a fraction of the cost of a satellite and for significantly longer than other aerial platforms.
According to the manufacturer:
“Zephyr provides continuous surveillance, communications and monitoring services across areas hundreds of kms wide. Airbus has developed and proven its high resolution imaging and high bandwidth communication services and is developing ever more capable payloads to further improve the range and value of services available. As technology advances, Zephyr can be landed (unlike satellites), re-equipped to take full advantage of the next generation of payloads and re-deployed in short timescales.”
Paul Brooks, Airbus Defence and Space’s head of HAPS business development said:
“Satellites are brilliant at global coverage, but they have a problem with persistence. Aircraft are good for local stuff, but they’re not very persistent and they’re very local. Astrium with their expertise in UAVs and satellites was starting to look at the gap between the two. Meanwhile, Qinetiq had Zephyr, and they were saying, ‘Well, we’re an R&D house: we’re not quite sure how this fits in.’ So in 2013 we took Zephyr into Airbus and married the two together. Basically, Zephyr is a satellite with wings.”
The Zephyr 8 is expected to fly for the first time next year and deliveries are expected to take place within the next two years.
This story had originally been denied by the MoD, it has now been confirmed.