Unmanned solar electric drone obliterates endurance record

An Airbus-built Zephyr Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) solar-electric stratospheric drone being tested by the US Army has been aloft for nearly 40 days – smashing previous records – and may still be up there above the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

Launched for its first flight of 2022 on June 15, when the US Army announced its initial results the UAS has been in the stratosphere for 36 days and was still flying over the Yuma Proving Ground.

The team prepares Zephyr for its launch on June 15, 2022. (US Army photo)

Given that we are now almost a week on from that announcement and there has been no indication the Zephyr UAS has returned to the ground, it may very well still be up there. In fact, Twitter account @BlueSky, which tracks military air traffic, Tweeted flight path data on July 22 showing that the UAS was still up there.

Regardless, it has nevertheless obliterated its previous endurance record of just three minutes short of 26 days, set in Arizona in August 2018.

Later that year, Airbus began testing the Zephyr at a remote outback airport in Western Australia.

Weighing in at less than 75 kilograms but with a wingspan of 25 metres, the Zephyr UAS is designed to fill the gap between orbital satellites, conventional aircraft, and ground towers, but with the persistence of a geostationary satellite and the manoeuvrability similar to a traditional aircraft.

Airbus doesn’t actually say how long the Zephyr UAS can stay aloft, promising only that it can fly continuously for months at a time at around 21 kilometers from the Earth’s surface.

During current testing with the US Army Futures Command team, the Zephyr UAS has accomplished a number of firsts, including its first flight into international airspace, first flight over water, longest continuous flight utilizing satellite communication controls, and the farthest demonstration from its launch point , all the while carrying a commercial, off-the-shelf payload.

“Ultra-long endurance unmanned platforms have the potential to provide significant military capabilities and enhanced confidence as part of the Army’s diversified multi-layered architecture,” said Michael Monteleone, director of the APNT/Space CFT.

“We have seen incredible progress in high-altitude platforms in recent years. This experimentation allows us to build on that knowledge by demonstrating multiple payload types, fully exploring the military utility of stratospheric operations, and modernizing areas of deep sensing, long-range targeting and resilient communications.”

A second Zephyr flight is expected to launch in the coming weeks and travel over the Pacific Ocean.

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