Aircraft

Airbus' solar-powered Zephyr smashes flight duration record on maiden outing

Airbus' Zephyr S aircraft took off on the 11th of July and has only now come down to Earth, a total of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes later
Airbus' Zephyr S aircraft took off on the 11th of July and has only now come down to Earth, a total of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes later
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Airbus’ Zephyr program has claimed another record
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Airbus’ Zephyr program has claimed another record
Airbus’ Zephyr program looks to put unmanned aircraft into the air for months at a time
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Airbus’ Zephyr program looks to put unmanned aircraft into the air for months at a time
Airbus’ Zephyr program is developing aircraft that can serve the same purposes as satellites
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Airbus’ Zephyr program is developing aircraft that can serve the same purposes as satellites
Airbus' Zephyr S aircraft took off on the 11th of July and has only now come down to Earth, a total of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes later
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Airbus' Zephyr S aircraft took off on the 11th of July and has only now come down to Earth, a total of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes later

Airbus' Zephyr program has claimed another record, with a production model unmanned solar-powered aircraft touching down after more than 25 days in the air. That voyage is the longest unmanned flight ever made, and was achieved on this particular vehicle's maiden voyage, no less.

Originally built by British defence company Qinetiq and now owned by Airbus, the Zephyr aircraft is designed to soar through the stratosphere for months at a time by drawing on the power of the sun. It is similar to Facebook's now defunct Aquila aircraft in this sense, and is hoped to one day provide satellite-like services with the flexibility of an unmanned drone.

The latest version of the Zephyr weighs just 75 kg (165 lb), but is able to carry up to five times its own weight. Flying above weather and other air traffic at 70,000 ft (21,300 m), the aircraft can be controlled from the ground and has the potential to carry all kinds of payloads, be they to collect high-resolution imagery, provide voice communications or, as was the idea with Aquila, beam internet service to underserved areas.

For more than a decade, different variations of the Zephyr aircraft have been setting off and setting records, with the first jaunt in 2007 lasting 54 hours and outdoing the previous endurance flight record, a 30-hour effort from Northrup Grunman's RQ-4A Global Hawk in 2001.

Since that first journey, the Zephyr and its variants have routinely flown longer and higher, most notably the prototype Zephyr UAS' 2010 flight that set three new records, including the endurance flight record for an unmanned aircraft of 14 days and 21 minutes.

Airbus’ Zephyr program looks to put unmanned aircraft into the air for months at a time
Airbus’ Zephyr program looks to put unmanned aircraft into the air for months at a time

Now the Zephyr S HAPS (High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite) has one-upped its predecessor in a big way. It took off from Arizona on the 11th of July and has only now come down to Earth, a total of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes later. This was the first outing for the production model Zephyr S, and the team is already setting its sights on its next voyage.

"This very successful maiden flight represents a new significant milestone in the Zephyr programme, adding a new stratospheric flight endurance record which we hope will be formalised very shortly," says Jana Rosenmann, Head of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Airbus. "We will in the coming days check all engineering data and outputs and start the preparation of additional flights planned for the second half of this year from our new operating site at the Wyndham airfield in Western Australia."

Source: Airbus

Update (Aug 10, 2018): This article originally stated that the Zephyr S' maiden flight was the longest flight ever made by any aircraft. A number of readers have pointed out this is incorrect. The flight of the Zephyr S was the longest duration flight for an unmanned aircraft without refueling. We apologise for the error, which has now been corrected, and thank the commenters who pointed out the mistake.

5 comments
MartinVoelker
Odd that the plane wouldn't have stayed airborne for another 3 minutes to make the record stand at 26 full days. Guessing they misjudged the timing of the descent. Such UAVs have great potential for telecom and can provide LTE for outposts or remote disaster areas.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
This would make a great fly-by-phone system!
Daishi
I'm not sure how useful these are at Internet connectivity for anywhere but places that hand infrastructure destroyed by natural disasters and very remote regions of the world that have no infrastructure. I think they do have application in mapping, surveillance, photography, traffic monitoring, search and rescue, and research.
Wavmakr
Just for the record It should be noted that.............. On June 4, 1935, The Flying Keys, as the brothers later became known, lifted off in a borrowed Curtiss Robin monoplane named Ole Miss from Meridian, Mississippi's airport. For the next twenty-seven days, they flew over the Meridian vicinity. Several times each day, the crew of a similar plane would lower food and supplies to the brothers on the end of a rope, as well as supply fuel via a long flexible tube. They landed on July 1 after traveling an estimated 52,320 miles and used more than 6,000 gallons of gasoline. Their non-stop endurance flight lasted 653 hours, 34 minutes, which is 27 days and 34 minutes. The Ole Miss is permanently displayed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.. After this historic flight, Meridian's public airport was renamed Key Field in the brothers' honor.
bhtooefr
@Wavmakr: And if we're going for refueled and manned records, there's always Robert Timm and John Cook's 1958-1959 flight in a modified Cessna 172, that lasted 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, 5 seconds.
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