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Air Platforms

Airbus' high-flying Zephyrs to head to UK for testing

11 May 2017
The UK MoD has ordered three Zephyr-S very-high-altitude UAVs, for which it will initiate a test programme this year. Source: Airbus DS

The defence unit of Airbus expects the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to begin testing the company's Zephyr-S very-high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in late 2017, a company executive told Jane's , adding that the system will be delivered to the MoD before the end of the summer.

The United Kingdom ordered two Zephyr-S platforms for GBP10.6 million (USD13.81 million) in February 2016 and then added an optional third airframe to its order last August, bringing the total contract value up to GBP13 million.

"We would hope to see the Zephyr commercialised in the 2020-2022 timeframe - the Dutch navy and army are interested too - though there are still some technical issues to be ironed out," said Jack Offerman, account manager in Leiden for the Netherlands & Denmark at Airbus Defence & Space, in remarks to a small conference on dual-use technologies in Aarhus, Denmark, on 5 May. "We think the platform will have a huge number of transforming applications in terms of its data collection."

Technically known as a HAPS - high-altitude pseudo-satellite - the Zephyr "fills the gap between satellites and fuel-powered aircraft by offering the endurance of the first but the manoeuvrability of the second", said Offerman. "And it's cheaper than either."

With its razor-thin glider-type design and its wings covered from tip to tip in solar panels, the single-fuselage Zephyr-S has a wingspan of 25 m and weighs just 62 kg but can ascend to and loiter at 70,000 ft, well above weather and commercial traffic. A twin-fuselage variant, the Zephyr-T, has a 33 m wingspan and a larger payload. Both platforms are in the final stage of prototyping. Airbus has its sales focus mainly on the twin version for the range of detection suites it could carry.

Noting that the Airbus Zephyr team has a large number of payloads developed by other companies, Otterman said the platform would easily lend itself to border security, maritime surveillance operations or as a flying communications hub.

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