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Airbus Zephyr

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An artist's impression of the UAV
Role high-altitude platform station
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space
Design group initially Qinetiq
First flight December 2005[1]
Introduction 2024 (planned)[2]
Status Under development

The Zephyr is a series of high-altitude platform station aircraft produced by Airbus. They were designed originally by QinetiQ, a commercial offshoot of the UK Ministry of Defence. In July 2010, the Zephyr 7 flew for 14 days. In March 2013, the project was sold to Airbus Defence and Space. In the summer of 2022, the Zephyr 8/S flew for 64 days.

The unmanned aerial vehicles are powered by solar cells, recharging batteries in daylight to stay aloft at night. The latest Zephyr 8/S weighs 60 kg (130 lb), has a wingspan of 25 m (82 ft), can reach 23,200 m (76,100 ft) and can lift a 5 kg (11 lb) payload for months. They can be used for mobile phone coverage, environmental monitoring, military reconnaissance or as a communications relay.


Zephyr 3[edit]

In 2003, QinetiQ, a commercial offshoot of the UK Ministry of Defence, was planning to fly its Zephyr 3 up to 40 km at 70 m/s (250 km/h; 140 kn), after being released from a high-altitude balloon at 9 km, besting the NASA Helios which had reached 29 km.[3] It was envisionned as an alternative to space satellites, stationed permanently in the stratosphere for environmental monitoring, mobile phone coverage or military applications.[3] The QinetiQ 1 balloon altitude record attempt failed in 2003.[4]

In February 2005, Qinetiq was preparing a demonstration above 30,000 ft for the UK Ministry of Defence at the Woomera Test Range in Australia, for reconnaissance or as a communications relay.[4]

Zephyr 6[edit]

Between 28 and 31 July 2008, in a demonstration for the US military at its Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the Zephyr 6 flew for 82 hours and 37 minutes, an unofficial record as the FAI wasn't involved.[5]

Zephyr 7[edit]

On 23 July 2010, the Zephyr 7 took the FAI-sanctioned duration record after a 336 hours (14 days), 22 min and 8 s flight,[6] reaching 21,562 m (70,741 ft).[7] It exceeded the nine days (216 hours) of the 1986 round-the-world flight of the Rutan Voyager.[8]

In March 2013, the project was sold to EADS Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space).[9]

In 2014 it flew for 11 days in the short days of winter whilst carrying a small payload for the British Ministry of Defence,[10] and later near civilian airspace.[11]

Zephyr 8/S[edit]

In February 2016, the UK Ministry of Defence purchased two Zephyr 8 planes.[12] In August 2016, a third was purchased.[13]

In 2016, a twin-tailed Zephyr T variant, providing a maritime surveillance and communications capability, was scheduled for flight testing in 2018.[14]

In summer 2018, for its maiden flight from Arizona, the Zephyr S remained aloft for 25 days 23 hours 57 minutes, nearly twice as long as the previous record flight of 14 days set by its predecessor.[15] By October 2021, it had flown 2,435 hours.[16]

On 15 June 2022, the Zephyr S took off in Arizona, venturing for the first time into international airspace and over water.[17] On 19 August, the plane was lost over the Arizona desert after a flight time of 64 days.[citation needed] It covered 56,000 km over the southern United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and South America.[18]

The aircraft was lost when one engine component (redesigned since) failed in an unusual high-altitude storm turbulence at 17 km.[2] By early 2023, Airbus planned to launch operations from the end of 2024 with around 18 aircraft.[2] By 2034, a 1,000 aircraft constellation could cover 2.9 billion people, and would provide emergency 4G/5G following natural disasters.[2] The larger Zephyr variant, with twice the payload capacity, is expected for 2026.[2]

Commercial services[edit]

In January 2023, the Aalto HAPS company was set up by Airbus to sell its mobile connectivity and earth observation services.[19] In June 2024, a Japanese consortium led by NTT Docomo and Space Compass committed to invest USD$100m in AALTO to commercialise connectivity HAPS services in Asia, targeting a 2026 introduction.[20]


Zephyr 3[edit]

The 12 m (39 ft) wide aircraft had a carbon composite frame to weigh 12 kg (26 lb), and 1 kW of solar cells powering five motors.[3]

Zephyr 6[edit]

The carbon fiber Zephyr 6 has a 18 m (59 ft) span and weighs 30-34 kg (70 lb) for a 2 kg (4.5 lb) payload.[5] Amorphous silicon solar cells from Unisolar recharge lithium-sulphur batteries from Sion Corporation with twice the energy density of the best alternative, lithium polymer batteries.[5] Launched by hand, it can reach 18 km (60,000 ft).[5] The first version had a battery capacity of 3 kW·h, driving two propellers.[21]

Zephyr 7[edit]

Zephyr 7 was larger, at 53 kg,[22] and capable of a maximum altitude between 20 and 21 km,[23] it required five ground crew to launch, as opposed to three previously for the Zephyr 6.[24]

Zephyr 8/S[edit]

Designed to fly at 20 km (65,000 ft) for more than a month, the 25 m (82 ft) wide Zephyr 8 is 30% lighter and can lift 50% more batteries than the Zephyr 7.[25] It weighs 60 kg, 40% of which are batteries (24kg), and the 5 kg payload can transmit video with a 50 cm resolution from above 20 km.[12] They should be able to operate year-round between 40 degrees North and South, while winter operation gets more difficult at higher latitudes.[12]

It used Amprius lithium-ion batteries with silicon nanowire anodes for a 435 Wh/kg specific energy up from 300–320 Wh/kg.[26] Solar cells are high-efficiency, lightweight, and flexible inverted metamorphic multi-junction epitaxial lift-off GaAs sheets manufactured by MicroLink Devices, with specific power exceeding 1,500 W/kg and areal powers greater than 350 W/m2.[27]

One Zephyr can replace 250 cell phone towers.[28] It can be used to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) with a wide visual payload coverage of 20×30 km (12.4×18.6 mi) and can be equipped with radar, LIDAR and infrared technologies.[17]

Endurance is targeted for up to 200-300 days.[2] An 8 kg (17.6 lb) mobile connectivity payload can serve up to 100,000 people on the ground.[2] A 5 kg Airbus-developed Opaz optical sensor can deliver 18 cm-resolution imagery.[2]


Airbus-QinetiQ Zephyr[29]
Model Span Weight Ceiling Endurance Payload
Zephyr 4 12 m (39 ft) 17 kg (37 lb) 9 140 m (30 000 ft) 6 h
Zephyr 5 16 m (52 ft) 31 kg (68 lb) 11 000 m (36 000 ft) 18 h
Zephyr 6 18 m (59 ft) 30 kg (66 lb) 18 300 m (60 000 ft) 87 h 2 kg (4.4 lb)
Zephyr 7 22,5 m (74 ft) 53 kg (117 lb) 21 000 m (69 000 ft) 336 h 5 kg (11 lb)
Zephyr 8/S 25 m (82 ft) 62-65 kg (137-143 lb) 23,200 m (76,100 ft)[16] 624 h 5 kg (11 lb)
Zephyr T 32 m (105 ft) 145 kg (320 lb) 20 kg (44 lb)

Accidents and incidents[edit]

As of August 2022, three hull losses have been reported:

  • March 2019, Wyndham, Western Australia[30]
  • 28 September 2019, Wyndham, Western Australia, during the first flight after the first incident in March 2019[31][30]
  • 19 August 2022, Arizona, just before breaking the record for the longest flight of any aircraft (a total of 64 days)[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Craig Hoyle (11 July 2006). "Energetic Qinetiq". flightglobal.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Craig Hoyle (6 January 2023). "Airbus readies high-flying Zephyr for 2024 service launch". Flightglobal.
  3. ^ a b c Amos, Jonathan (24 June 2003). "Strato-plane looks forward". BBC News.
  4. ^ a b Craig Hoyle (22 February 2005). "UK's Zephyr UAV to be tested for military role". Flight International.
  5. ^ a b c d Amos, Jonathan (24 August 2008). "Solar plane makes record flight". BBC News.
  6. ^ "FAI Record ID No. 16052". FAI. 16 October 2017. Absolute Record of class U (Experimental / New Technologies) for Duration
  7. ^ "FAI Record ID No. 18683". FAI. 29 August 2018. Record of class U (Experimental / New Technologies) for True altitude
  8. ^ Amos, Jonathan (23 July 2010). "'Eternal plane' returns to Earth". BBC News.
  9. ^ "First flight of Astrium's Zephyr solar HAPS" (Press release). Airbus. 25 September 2013. Archived from the original on 5 October 2013.
  10. ^ Tovey, Alan (31 August 2014). "Fly 11 days non-stop? Now that's long-haul". Daily Telegraph.
  11. ^ Woodrow Bellamy III (1 October 2014). "Airbus Zephyr Proves Value For Civil Operations in Middle East". Avionics Today. Access Intelligence LLC.
  12. ^ a b c "MoD to buy high-flying solar planes". BBC. 2 February 2016.
  13. ^ "MOD buys third record-breaking UAV" (Press release). UK MOD. 17 August 2016.
  14. ^ "Farnborough 2016: Airbus releases Zephyr T details, outlines CONOPS for systems". Janes. 14 July 2016. Archived from the original on 25 August 2016.
  15. ^ Dan Thisdell (8 August 2018). "Airbus sets flight endurance record with Zephyr UAV". Flightglobal.
  16. ^ a b Sampson, Ben (15 October 2021). "Airbus Zephyr breaks more aviation records during flight testing". Aerospace Testing International.
  17. ^ a b Buchaniec, Catherine (22 July 2022). "Up, up and away: Airbus' Zephyr drone breaks flight record high above Arizona". Defense News.
  18. ^ "Unexpected end to Zephyr 8's record-smashing 64-day endurance flight". New Atlas. 24 August 2022.
  19. ^ Ben Sampson (23 January 2023). "Airbus brands stratospheric drone business as Aalto". Aerospace testing international.
  20. ^ "NTT DOCOMO and Space Compass partners with Airbus on HAPS, committing to a USD$100 million investment in AALTO" (Press release). AALTO. 3 June 2024.
  21. ^ Bush, Steve (28 September 2007). "Inside Qinetiq's Zephyr solar powered plane". Electronics weekly.
  22. ^ "Wing-to-tail guide to Zephyr, the 'eternal' plane". BBC News. 23 July 2010.
  23. ^ "British MoD Acquires Solar-Powered Zephyr UAV". 17 February 2016.
  24. ^ Goodier, Rob (7 July 2010). "Solar Plane Aims for New Record: 3 Months Aloft Without a Pilot or Fuel". Popular mechanics.
  25. ^ "United Kingdom Ministry of Defence places order for two solar-powered Airbus Zephyr 8s" (Press release). Airbus. 18 February 2016.
  26. ^ Graham Warwick (13 December 2018). "Record-Breaking Zephyr's Battery Holds eVTOL Potential". Aviation Week & Space Technology.
  27. ^ MicroLink Devices (17 October 2018). "MicroLink Devices Powers Successful Stratospheric Flight of Airbus Defence and Space Zephyr S HAPS Solar Aircraft" (Press release).
  28. ^ "Zephyr". Airbus.
  29. ^ "Airbus-QinetiQ Zephyr". AviationsMilitaires.net.
  30. ^ a b "In-flight break-up involving Airbus Zephyr unmanned aerial vehicle, near Wyndham Airport, Western Australia, on 28 September 2019". Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 28 September 2020.
  31. ^ "Outback aviation incident linked to UK Ministry of Defence". 9News. 12 April 2019.

External links[edit]