A solar-powered drone developed by Airbus has set a new world record for the longest nonstop flight. Beginning on July 11, the Airbus Zephyr flew for a staggering 25 days over the Arizona desert. The fact that any aircraft can stay in the air for more than two dozen days a feat in itself. What makes the Zephyr particularly impressive, however, is its power source. Unlike most aircraft, the Zephyr isn’t powered by liquid jet fuel. Rather, it’s powered by the sun.
The Zephyr isn’t any ordinary drone. It features a long, slender frame affixed with solar panels on the top. Consisting of photovoltaic material, these solar panels are responsible for capturing, collecting and converting sunlight into electricity. As the solar panels
According to various reports, Airbus is developing two different models of the Zephyr. The production model, known as the Zephyr S, features a 25-meter wingspan with a weight of about 165 pounds (yes, it’s really that light). As the name suggests, the production model is designed to carry payloads. There’s also the Zephyr T model, which features a longer wingspan of about 33 meters and a heavier weight of 308 pounds.
So, what’s the purpose of the Zephyr? Without a functional cabin, neither of the models will be used to transport passengers. Rather, the Zephyr is designed to act a high-altitude psuedo satellite (HAPS). It’s long flight duration and ability to power itself using sunlight makes it a particularly effective HAPS. Companies and organizations can fit the Zephyr with satellite components, essentially turning the Zephyr into a low-flying satellite.
“The first unmanned aircraft of its kind to fly in the stratosphere, Zephyr harnesses the sun’s rays, running exclusively on solar power, above the weather and conventional air traffic. It is a HAPS: a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite, able to fly for months at a time, combining the persistence of a satellite with the flexibility of a UAV,” wrote Airbus on its official website.
It’s unlikely that the Zephyr will make satellites obsolete. However, it does offer a viable alternative for organizations looking to launch a satellite. Rather than using a rocket, they can use the Zephyr. It performs the same functions but at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, Airbus is still developing the Zephyr, and there’s been no official announcement on when it will be available to purchase. Until then, organizations will have to rely on traditional satellites.