The solar-powered, high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV previously known as the Qinetiq Zephyr, which is now part of the Airbus High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) program and called the Airbus Zephyr, has continued its record-breaking ways in its first civil flight in the skies over Dubai earlier this month.

Having set three world records in a 2010 flight, including the record for the longest endurance flight for an unmanned aircraft of 336 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds, the Zephyr has now set a record of 61,696 ft (18,805 m) for the highest altitude reached in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with the longest flight in the UAE with the test flight lasting 23 hours and 47 minutes.

But it is not the latest altitude and endurance records that are the most notable aspects of the flight, but the fact it marked the first time a HAPS flight has been authorized by a civil authority: in this case, the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA). The flight started at 6:31 am local time on September 11 with the Zephyr taking off from the Margham area of Dubai and completing a full day/night cycle of operation close to one of the three busiest airports in the world without affecting civil air traffic, before landing back in Dubai at 6:18 am on September 12.

The team responsible for the test flight included engineers from the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), which has partnered with Airbus Defence & Space to jointly develop the HAPS system. The two groups came together in March of this year to prepare the demonstration model Zephyr, which ended up weighing 34 kg (75 lb) and boasted a wingspan of 18 m (59 ft).

"The flight in Dubai demonstrated the ability of Zephyr to operate in regions of the world’s most crowded airspaces," said Chris Kelleher, Technical Director of the Airbus HAPS program. ”I am immensely grateful for the support and diligence of the Dubai CAA and other authorities in working closely with the combined EIAST Airbus Team to ensure a safe and successful stratospheric flight. With all systems working well in temperatures ranging between +40° C and -80° C (104° F and -112° F) and up to a maximum altitude of 61,696 ft, this flight further reinforces confidence in Zephyr for users and regulators."

With the ability to fly in the stratosphere, the Zephyr combines the benefits of a satellite in terms of altitude and applications, and an aircraft in terms of re-usability, flexibility and coverage.

The EIAST/Airbus team is targeting various applications for the aircraft, including thermal imaging, Full HD video imaging, environmental monitoring, emergency services support, the creation of temporary communications networks and the enhancement of navigation systems. The test flight saw the Zephyr equipped with a Full-HD video payload boasting 30 times zooming capability and providing imaging resolution of around 10 cm (4 in), depending on altitude.

The program will now move into the second phase, which is due to be completed in 2016 and will involve the development of the first generation of the HAPS aircraft that is projected to go into operation by the end of that year.

Sources: Airbus DS, EIAST

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