Airbus’ solar-powered aircraft successfully completes 18-day flight and sets world record

Boris Johnson visits the Airbus headquarters in Stevenage

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The British-built unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) took to the skies above Arizona, US, and set a new world record for “absolute altitude”. Soaring some 76,100ft above the surface, the Zephyr logged a total of 36 days of stratospheric flight across two tests this summer. The latest test was carried out in August in partnership with the Japanese firm NTT DOCOMO and saw the Zephyr beam high-speed broadband to the surface from an onboard radio transmitter.

The Japanese mobile operator has now confirmed the test was a success and highlighted the potential applications of Airbus’s high altitude platform system (HAPS).

The goal is to deliver an aerial platform that can provide 5G and 6G connectivity from the sky to remote parts of the globe – much like Elon Musk’s fleet of Starlink satellites.

But in this case, operators would employ a fleet of solar-powered aircraft instead of satellites.

The Zephyr UAV has been in development since 2003, first built by British Defence contractor, QinetiQ.

Since then, the aircraft has been tested by the US military and was sold to Airbus Defence and Space, formerly EADS Astrium.

The newest Zephyr S model comes armed with an 82ft-long wingspan and two propeller engines that are powered entirely by the Sun.

Even more impressively, the aircraft does not produce any greenhouse gasses and does not use any fuel, earning it the “carbon neutral” badge of honour.

Takehiro Nakamura, General Manager of DOCOMO’s 6G-IOWN Promotion Department, said: “DOCOMO believes that HAPS will be a promising solution for coverage expansion in 5G evolution and 6G.

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“In this measurement experiment, we were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of HAPS, especially for direct communication to smartphones, through long-term propagation measurements using actual HAPS equipment.

“Based on these results, we would like to further study the practical application of HAPS in 5G evolution and 6G with Airbus.”

Stephane Ginoux, Head of North Asia region for Airbus and President of Airbus Japan K.K., added: “Billions of people across the world suffer from poor or no connectivity.

“These tests show us the viability of the stratosphere to bridge this divide and provide direct to device connectivity via Zephyr without the need for base stations or extra infrastructure.”

The Airbus test was carried out in August this year, with the spacecraft touching down in Arizona on September 13.

It was part of a wide campaign of six test flights in total, four of which were low-level flights and two were stratospheric flights.

Each flight lasted about 18 days, adding to a total of 2,435 stratospheric flight hours for Zephyr to date.

Jana Rosenmann, Head of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Airbus, said: “Credible and proven ultra-persistence, stratospheric agility, and payload interoperability underscore why Zephyr is the leader in its sector.

“It is a sustainable, solar-powered, ISR and network extending solution that can provide vital future connectivity and earth observation to where it is needed.”

According to Airbus, the aircraft will have the ability to stay in the air for months at a time.

James Gavin, Future Capability Group Head at Defence Equipment & Support, the procurement arm of the UK Ministry of Defence, said: “Working with Airbus and the Zephyr team during the 2021 flight campaign, significant progress has been made towards demonstrating HAPS as a capability.

“This summer’s activities represent an important step towards operationalising the stratosphere.”

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