Airbus’ Zephyr S, a ‘high-altitude-pseudo-satellite’, has surpassed the current flight endurance record for an aircraft remaining in the air without refuelling.

The solar-powered unmanned aircraft has broken the existing record of 14 days, 22 minutes and 8 seconds, and continues its flight. The previous record was set by an earlier Zephyr model.

The Zephyr S departed for its maiden flight from Arizona, USA on July 11.

This first flight of the Zephyr S aims to prove and demonstrate the aircraft capabilities, with the final endurance record to be confirmed on landing.

Above the weather

In the stratosphere at an average altitude of 70,000 feet, the ultra-lightweight Zephyr has a wingspan of 25 metres and a weight of less than 75kg. It flies above weather (clouds, jet streams) and above regular air traffic.

The only civil aircraft that used to fly at this altitude was Concorde. The military U2 and SR-71 Blackbird could also operate at similar levels.

Zephyr’s expected applications include maritime surveillance, border patrol missions, communications, and forest fire detection and monitoring.

Local persistence

Airbus says the Zephyr is ideally suited for “local persistence” (ISR/Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) because it has the ability to stay focused on a specific area of interest (which can be hundreds of miles wide) while providing satellite-like communications and Earth observation services over long periods of time without interruption.

“Not quite an aircraft and not quite a satellite, but incorporating aspects of both, the Zephyr has the persistence of a satellite with the flexibility of a UAV,” a statement from Airbus says.

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