Could Zephyr S, Airbus’ 100% solar drone soon replace satellites?

“Pseudolite” is a contraction of the words “pseudo” and “satellite”. And it must be admitted that the solar drone called Zephyr S and manufactured by Airbus bears this name well. Last year he broke an altitude record by flying more than 23,000 meters above the ground into the upper stratosphere. An altitude that allows it to accomplish some of the missions normally assigned to satellites. This July 2022, the machine broke a new endurance record by flying continuously for more than 26 days… and it’s not over.

Equipped with wings with a span of 28 meters, covered with photovoltaic modules, Zephyr S There’s also a 24kg battery that stores electricity during the day to recharge it throughout the night, allowing it to fly continuously while powered by the sun’s only rays. Weighing a total of 75 kg and operated from the ground like a drone, it can carry a 5 kg payload.

The first Zephyr was designed by the company in 2003 QinetiQ On behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence. In 2013 EADS was sold to Astrium, which has since become Airbus Defense and SpaceA subsidiary of Airbus Group, the concept is of great interest to the military as the unmanned vehicle could conduct long-term surveillance missions. the stratosphere[1], flying high above the clouds, but also the route of civil aviation. What it really is is a call to experts haps (High Altitude Pseudo-satellite).

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allowed to cross the airspace

Depending on the payload it carries, the device can be dedicated to many applications. According to Airbus, it can, for example, serve large geographic areas with mobile telephony by replacing more than 250 relay antennas. It is also capable of conducting environmental and border surveillance missions. With its large electro-optical and infrared sensors, Zéphyr can transmit high-quality photos and videos of the planet. He can too Replacement of faulty satellite links To maintain communication and surveillance networks.

Approved by the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), Zephyr can fly in the sky. This validation is important, as this drone will be able to cross commercial aviation routes in autonomous mode before reaching the stratosphere.

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Altitude and endurance records

During test flights conducted late last year to receive its approval, the Zephyr S achieved a feat: flying at a record height of 23,915 meters, it was the first drone to reach the upper stratosphere.

On July 13, the device broke another record, this time for endurance: the one it had already flown continuously for more than 26 days without returning to the ground since 2018. Taking off from a test track located in Arizona (USA), it flew to reach Mexico Belize – a Central American country – before turning around and heading back to base.

Although Airbus declined to comment on the event, a US military spokesman told the BBC that the purpose of the test flight was to test the batteries’ power storage capacity as well as their longevity, the performance of the solar modules and the Zephyr’s capabilities. S is positioned over a point on the planet.

According to Tom Robinson, editor of Aircraft Magazine, this achievement is an important step in the HAPS development program as it demonstrates the ability to navigate beyond the limits of receiving command signals sent by its operators.

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Better than satellite

Zéphyr can provide images and information, Like a satellite. But its advantage is that unlike these it does not have to orbit the Earth. ” Which means it can stay in one location and provide continuous updates Tom Robinson says.

Compared to satellites that usually cannot return to the ground after launch, it has another important advantage: ” This drone is yours Robinson said. ” You can upgrade or upgrade its sensor, Replace the payload, where Embed new technologies “, he noted.

But given the abundance of fossil fuels required to launch a satellite, the Zephyr S uses only renewable energy to launch and fly. In our view, this is a decisive advantage in the context of the fight against climate change.

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[1] The stratosphere is the second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, ranging from six to sixteen kilometers in height for its lower limit and fifty kilometers in height for its upper limit.

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