Airbus Zephyr

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Airbus Zephyr Artists Impression.jpg
An artist's impression of the UAV
Role High-altitude long endurance unmanned aircraft
National origin United Kingdom
Design group initially Qinetiq, now Airbus Defence and Space
Introduction 2017
Status Under development
Number built 3

The Airbus Zephyr is a series of lightweight solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The latest model is a high-altitude platform station capable of flying at 70,000 feet (21,000 m) for months at a time without fueling. It has a wingspan of 25 metres (82 ft) and weighs 75 kilograms (165 lb).[1]


The Zephyr was originally designed and built in 2003 by the British defence contractor QinetiQ.[2]

In a 2008 demonstration for the US military, Zephyr 6 (a smaller-scale version) broke the official world record for the longest-duration unmanned flight, however its 82-hour flight at an altitude of 61,000 ft (19,000 m) did not set an official record because FAI officials were not involved in the flight.[3]

The Zephyr 7 holds the official endurance record for an unrefuelled, unmanned aerial vehicle with its flight from 9 to 23 July 2010, lasting 336 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds (14 days, 22 min, 8 s). It could remain airborne for months thanks to its solar cells and rechargeable batteries.[4][5][6] Record claims have been verified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for both duration[5] and altitude, at 21,562 metres. It more than doubled the previous endurance record for unmanned flight.[7][8][9]

The Zephyr system was sold to EADS Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) in March 2013, where it was successfully re-flown as part of the High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) programme.[10][11]

In 2014 it flew for 11 days in winter,[12] and later near civilian airspace.[13]

In November 2015, in the House of Commons, British prime minister David Cameron laid out plans during the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, to enhance Great Britain's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capacity. He stated that the UK was to field a "British-designed unmanned aircraft that will fly at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere and allow us to monitor our adversaries for weeks on end, providing critical intelligence for our armed forces." A purchase of two Zephyr 8 planes was reported in February 2016.[14] In August 2016 Ministry of Defence confirmed the purchase of a third Zephyr 8 platform.[15]

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.[16] It used Amprius lithium-ion batteries with silicon nanowire anodes for a 435 Wh/kg specific energy up from 300–320 Wh/kg.[17] High-efficiency, lightweight, and flexible inverted metamorphic (IMM) multi-junction epitaxial lift-off (ELO) GaAs solar cell sheets manufactured by MicroLink Devices provided the solar power with specific powers exceeding 1,500 W/kg and areal powers greater than 350 W/m2.[18]

In addition to Zephyr 8, otherwise known as Zephyr S, full-scale flight testing was scheduled for a twin-tailed Zephyr T variant in 2018 aimed at providing a maritime surveillance and communications capability.[19]

In July 2022, Zephyr S spent 26 days airborne, breaking its previous record from 2018.[20] The flight began on 15 June in Arizona, and by 22 July the plane was still flying after being aloft for 36 days. It marked the Zephyr's first venture into international airspace and over water, and its longest continuous flight using satellite communication controls.[21] By 5 August, it had reached 50 days of continuous flight.[22] On 19 August 2022, the plane was lost over a desert in Arizona with no personal injury reported after a flight time of 64 days.[23] It flew over the southern United States, the Gulf of Mexico, and South America, covering a distance of 30,000 nmi (35,000 mi, 56,000 km) during the course of the flight.[24]


The Zephyr 6 is of carbon-fibre construction and uses sunlight to charge a lithium–sulphur battery during the day, which powers the aircraft at night. The aircraft has been designed for use in observation and communications relay.[25]

The vehicle can circle over a particular area for extended periods, with particular emphasis on its potential civil and military applications as an Earth-observation and communications platform. During the day, Zephyr uses its solar cells spread across its wings to recharge high-power lithium–sulphur batteries and drive two propellers. At night, the energy stored in the batteries is sufficient to maintain Zephyr in the sky. The lithium–sulphur batteries are supplied by Sion, and the first version had a battery capacity of 3 kW·h.[26][27]

Zephyr 7 was larger, at 53 kg,[28] and capable of a maximum altitude between 65,000 and 70,000 feet,[29] it required five ground crew to launch, as opposed to three previously for the Zephyr 6.[30]

The Zephyr 8 has roughly 24 kg of batteries and a 5 kg payload,[14] and is 30% lighter and carry 50% more batteries than the Zephyr 7.[31] It has a 25-metre wingspan. By October 2021, it had flown 2,435 hours.[32]

Zephyr is under consideration for use as an airborne communication station, offering the possibility of replacing 250 cell sites.[1] 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.[21]


Model Zephyr 6 Zephyr 7 Zephyr 8
(Zephyr S)
Payload 2.5 kg
(5.5 lb)
5 kg
(11 lb)
Batteries 24 kg
(53 lb) Amprius lithium-ion
Solar technology Amorphous silicon Triple-junction inverted
metamorphic (IMM) epitaxial
lift-off (ELO) GaAs-based solar cells
Span 22.5 m
(74 ft)
25–28 m
(82–92 ft)
max takeoff weight 53 kg
(117 lb)
75 kg
(165 lb)
Motors 2× Newcastle University custom
permanent-magnet synchronous motor
Power 0.45 kW (0.60 hp) each
Cruise 30 kn
(56 km/h)
Ceiling 70,741 ft
(21,562 m)
76,100 ft
(23,200 m)[32]
Endurance 3.4 days 14 days 64 days

Accidents and incidents[edit]

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

  • March 2019, Wyndham, Western Australia[33]
  • 28 September 2019, Wyndham, Western Australia, during the first flight after the first incident in March 2019[34][33]
  • 19 August 2022, Arizona, just before breaking the record for the longest flight of any aircraft (a total of 64 days)[23]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Wang, Brian (23 October 2021). "Airbus Solar Powered Aircraft Can Fly for 18 Days And Replace 250 Cell Towers". Retrieved 25 October 2021.
  2. ^ Amos, Jonathan (24 June 2003). "Strato-plane looks forward". BBC News. British engineers are preparing to push the limits of aeroplane technology
  3. ^ Amos, Jonathan (24 August 2008). "Solar plane makes record flight". BBC News.
  4. ^ Amos, Jonathan (23 July 2010). "'Eternal plane' returns to Earth". BBC News.
  5. ^ a b "FAI Record ID No. 16052". Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Archived from the original on 4 April 2014. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  6. ^ Haynes, Deborah. "UK drones to spy from the stratosphere | The Times". The Times. Retrieved 4 February 2016.
  7. ^ Hanlon, Mike (23 July 2010). "QinetiQ Zephyr solar powered unmanned aircraft to land after 14 days aloft". GizMag. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  8. ^ Amos, Jonathan (17 July 2010). "Zephyr solar plane flies 7 days non-stop". BBC News.
  9. ^ Amos, Jonathan (14 July 2010). "Zephyr solar plane set for record endurance flight". BBC News.
  10. ^ "First flight of Astrium's Zephyr solar HAPS". Airbus. Archived from the original on 5 October 2013. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  11. ^ "United Kingdom Ministry of Defence places order for two solar-powered Airbus Zephyr 8s". Airbus. Archived from the original on 13 January 2017. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  12. ^ Tovey, Alan (31 August 2014). "Fly 11 days non-stop? Now that's long-haul". Daily Telegraph.
  13. ^ Bellamy, Woodrow III. "Airbus Zephyr Proves Value For Civil Operations in Middle East", Aviation Today, 1 October 2014. Accessed: 2 October 2014.
  14. ^ a b "MoD to buy high-flying solar planes". 2 February 2016 – via
  15. ^ "MOD buys third record-breaking UAV". UK MOD. 17 August 2016. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
  16. ^ Dan Thisdell (8 August 2018). "Airbus sets flight endurance record with Zephyr UAV". Flightglobal.
  17. ^ Graham Warwick (13 December 2018). "Record-Breaking Zephyr's Battery Holds eVTOL Potential". Aviation Week & Space Technology.
  18. ^ Devices, MicroLink. "MicroLink Devices Powers Successful Stratospheric Flight of Airbus Defence and Space Zephyr S HAPS Solar Aircraft". Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  19. ^ "Farnborough 2016: Airbus releases Zephyr T details, outlines CONOPS for systems". Janes. 14 July 2016. Archived from the original on 25 August 2016. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  20. ^ "Zephyr breaks own record for longest unmanned flight". BBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  21. ^ a b Buchaniec, Catherine (22 July 2022). "Up, up and away: Airbus' Zephyr drone breaks flight record high above Arizona". Defense News. Retrieved 26 September 2022.
  22. ^ Parsons, Dan (5 August 2022). "Army's Zephyr Drone Is Still Aloft After 50 Days". The Drive. Retrieved 26 September 2022.
  23. ^ a b The Airbus Zephyr Comes Crashing Down In Arizona Simple Flying. Retrieved 22 August 2022.
  24. ^ Unexpected end to Zephyr 8's record-smashing 64-day endurance flight. New Atlas. 24 August 2022.
  25. ^ QinetiQ Group (14 September 2008). "Zephyr – QinetiQ High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs)". Archived from the original on 26 August 2008.
  26. ^ QinetiQ Group (16 July 2010). "QinetiQ's Zephyr solar powered unmanned aircraft soars to new world records". Archived from the original on 23 July 2010. Retrieved 17 August 2010.
  27. ^ Bush, Steve (28 September 2007). "Inside Qinetiq's Zephyr solar powered plane". Electronics weekly. Archived from the original on 22 January 2013. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  28. ^ "Wing-to-tail guide to Zephyr, the 'eternal' plane". BBC News. 23 July 2010.
  29. ^ "British MoD Acquires Solar-Powered Zephyr UAV". 17 February 2016.
  30. ^ Goodier, Rob (7 July 2010). "Solar Plane Aims for New Record: 3 Months Aloft Without a Pilot or Fuel". Popular mechanics. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  31. ^ "Ministry of Defence places order for two solar-powered Airbus Zephyr 8s".
  32. ^ a b Sampson, Ben (15 October 2021). "Airbus Zephyr breaks more aviation records during flight testing". Aerospace Testing International.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ "Outback aviation incident linked to UK Ministry of Defence".

External links[edit]