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US Army completes live-flight demo of Zephyr UAS

Zephyr HAPS. (Airbus Defence and Security)

A recent US Army Futures Command (AFC) live-flight demonstration of a solar-powered, stratospheric unmanned aerial system (UAS) could play into service-led efforts to extend intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, as well as enable new long-range, beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) communications programmes.

Officials from the command's Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing/Space (APNT/Space) Cross-Functional Team (CFT) conductedan over two-month flight test of the Airbus-built Zephyr 8 ultra-long-endurance UAS, launched from the service's Yuma Proving Ground experimentation facility in Arizona. On 15 June the UAS traversed airspace across territory spanning the Southern US, Gulf of Mexico, and into South America, AFC officials said in a 22 August statement.

Flying at an altitude of 60,000 ft, the UAS was outfitted with various payloads to conduct “data collection and direct downlink … satellite communications, and the demonstration of resilient satellite command and control” from the Yuma test grounds along with locations in Huntsville, Alabama, and Farnborough in the United Kingdom, AFC officials said. Apart from payloads, command officials were able to gather real-word data on the aircraft's operational capabilities, such as its “energy storage capacity, flight endurance, station-keeping, and agile positioning abilities”, they added.

The flight test concluded on 18 August, when the unmanned aircraft suffered “events that led to its unexpected termination” while flying over the Yuma facility, said army officials,noting an investigation is currently under way.

“Our team is working hard to gather and analyse important data following the unexpected termination of this flight,” said APNT/Space CFT Director Michael Monteleone. “Despite this event, the army and its partners have gleaned invaluable data and increased knowledge on the endurance, efficiency, and station-keeping abilities of high-altitude UAS platforms,” he said in the statement.

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