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.

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Craig

Looking rather “defenceless” though despite operating at levels where assumed interference would be negligible.

Lee Warrent


Rob Simmonds

Looks good, but 5KG of payload doesn’t amount to much surveillance or communications capability. A single 400mm lens could easily eat 2KG of that.

Patrick Lovell

Still leaves 3kg then.

UK Defence Journal

You’d be surprised.

Bryan Holden
Matthew O'Connell

As someone who has flown first person view planes for 4 or 5 years, 5 kg payload is plenty.

Ben Gray

5kg of classified military surveillance equipment is probably worth 25kg of civilian equipment ?

David L Thomas

Could be a Canon 400 DO lens which weigh less or some new of smart / light glass.

Tom Glyde

Solar powered? It won’t be deployed in UK skies very often then

UK Defence Journal

It flies above the clouds.

David Anthony Simpson

The term “High altitude” cleary presents some people with understanding issues!

Tom Glyde

Failed attempt at humour

Dave Rhian Bartlam

Tom Glyde, I laughed 🙂

David Anthony Simpson

Excellent. What a differnt shaped RAF is emerging. Great world beating technology and capability for this information warfare age. Wonder what squadron will fly them? 🙂

By then, the army!

Unusually Provoactive!!

Alright, Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps…

Solar powred balloons? Whatever next?

Ben Oliver

I think more likely ( given some countries ability to remove satalites and our increased reliance on uav and network centric warfare ) that this is going to be used as a mobile comms relay.

Richard Hardwick

They should’ve bought it when it was a Qinetiq project….

Jon Roach

I wonder why they didn’t. Oh no, I don’t.

Al Cooper

Reading previous comments, I don’t know which sqdn will fly them but it will be the same old commissioned RAF, I recently saw an RAF photo of a UAV operator, sitting at his console, in a building, wearing a flying suit!

Steve Altra

These types of high altitude, UAVs also have the potential to be used as ad hoc navigation systems (3+ for triangulation as an RPS – Regional Positioning system) when satellites go down, and as communication relays. With a parabolic on the top, they can send high speed, encrypted data to a communication satellite constellation overhead, with minimal risk of signal jamming or interception. They can operate in the same fashion as Global Hawk, although with smaller payloads, but much higher endurance.

Joe Harrison

IS This so Great Britain sees how many more ‘refugees’ the government is allowing the E.U. to send.

Morgan Ough

We used to have an excellent aircraft called the Canberra…..

Daz Vallis

Yes it was excellent but considering it entered service in 1951 it served far longer than it was designed to

Reece Harding

“Purchase”.. Gone are the days when Britain built its own.

UK Defence Journal

These are British designed and built…

Fraser Maxie Maxwell

Err what’s the reaper predator and sentinel for then

Daniel Adams

They can’t stay up for months at a time.

Should we be spending more money that we don’t have

Daniel Adams

No cost is stated so can’t say if it’s a lot of money or not. But that argument could be used for anything. Should we spend money on the armed forces at all. Obviously we should and providing the best equipment money can reasonably offer is the price we pay.

Oh well what do I know I’m 20 and ex air cadet sorry space cadet to grown ups. We only know how to play computer games

Daniel Adams

I’m only 25. I don’t know a lot about these aircraft but I’d imagen they are in the low tens of millions each which is pennies in defence programs and cost next to nothing (in defence terms) to maintain but give you a stratospheric increase in capabilities as said in the article. pardon then pun. I’d say it was one of the most cost effective decisions made in a long time.

I believe the cost is £25m for the two.

These will fill very different roles to Reaper and Sentinel Fraser, as someone who was an air cadet you should be aware of this.

I understand the need for high altitude recon but the GR4s did a pretty good job during the flooding said few years back as well as the recon over the middle east. This UAV maybe able to stay up longer but where are we going to get light enough equipment. Lighter than five kg

Daniel Adams

Gr4s? Come on Please. Look at the cost of flying a GR 4 let alone all the other drawbacks. 5kg is a lot of weight. And the article states they have tested it with a camera that took pictures with a resolution of 50 cm resolution.

Colin Leatham

I suggest we get out and walk.

Michael Hynes

Could be useful in providing a battlefield airborne communications node.