The MoD has placed an order with Airbus Defence and Space for the build and operation of two solar-powered Zephyr 8 high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) craft.
Fitted with a range of communications links, the ultra-lightweight Zephyr 8 can fly at 65,000ft, making it capable of avoiding weather systems and providing persistent surveillance over land and sea or sea for months at a time.
The earlier Zephyr 7 HAPS had a 22.5m wingspan and broke the UAV endurance record in 2014 with an 11-day flight, a feat accomplished in winter conditions and accompanying short daylight in which its solar cells could charge its batteries.
The latest generation Zephyr 8 has a wingspan of 25m, is 30% lighter and can carry 50% more batteries than Zephyr 7. According to Airbus, this enables the ground controlled Zephyr 8 to carry heavier payloads for its surveillance and communications roles.
The first Zephyr 8 is under construction at Airbus Defence and Space’s Farnborough, UK facility and is due to fly in mid-2017.
The MoD has not disclosed how the aircraft will be used, although November 2015’s Strategic Defence and Security Review does make reference to the procurement of advanced communications equipment for Britain’s special forces, including investment in advanced high-altitude surveillance aircraft.
Civilian applications for Zephyr include humanitarian missions, precision farming, environmental and security monitoring, and to provide internet coverage to regions of poor or zero connectivity.