Space, UAVs and Payloads: Shaping a Menu of Choice with the Zephyr


2014-08-28 The focus of both the commercial and military worlds with regard to space and UAVs is upon payloads.

What can deliver the digital content which I need for critical requirements now and be effective in the years ahead?

Space and UAVs are in competition with one another for this, and one contribution which UAVs can provide that satellites can not is much more rapid upgradeability. A challenge facing satellites has been the rapidly changing electronics and digital worlds which make putting up satellites with long life less desirable than in the past, because of how rapidly technology is changing.

A good business to be in is the payloads business with an ability to be flexible about where those payloads go, whether upon manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft or space systems.

Airbus Defence and Space is testing a high altitude UAV which fits nicely into the payload revolution.

Called the Zephyr, Airbus Defence and Space provided a press release on the progress of the system.

Airbus Defence and Space has announced that the Zephyr 7 High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) has just completed its most demanding mission to date and thus set a new benchmark in persistent, year-round operations for this class of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

Zephyr UAV in flight. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space
Zephyr UAV in flight. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

The test consisted of over 11 days of non-stop flight, in winter weather conditions with a new primary payload, including flight controlled through satellite communications – three more benchmarks reached by Zephyr 7.

HAPS run exclusively on solar power, which is used during the day to charge a battery that is used to power the flight through the night, so this flight in shorter days and longer nights was significantly more demanding than any previous one.

“During this most recent flight of the Airbus Zephyr, we successfully demonstrated a number of advancements that are critical to achieving the operational readiness of the technology and that increase its operational value for our customers,” said Jens Federhen, Head of the Airbus HAPS program.

“We have furthermore reached an important milestone in our regulatory roadmap.”

The flight, which was executed for the UK Ministry of Defence (UK MOD), was approved in controlled airspace, which required the close cooperation of the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), the Type Airworthiness Authority (TAA) and the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) team of the MOD Defence Equipment and Support Group, leading to the Zephyr 7 being assigned its military registration, PS001 – the first Pseudo-Satellite registered.

“This is the first time that the UK’s military aviation authorities have expanded our well-proven procedures and regulations into the domain of these novel, long-duration pseudo-satellites,” said Group Captain Paul Lloyd of the TAA, “and it has been both instructive and encouraging to see how effectively the regulations and the Airbus approach to Zephyr were brought together to enable such an operation.”

Apart from flying a new primary payload, Jens Federhen highlighted the fact that for the first time, satellite communications had been used to control and monitor the aircraft.

“The use of the SatCom link to control the aircraft beyond line of sight of the ground station is another critical aspect that we needed to test to move towards a pseudo-satellite form of operation where the Zephyrs can be controlled across the world from a central control station,” he said, also pointing out the fact that this helps to further reduce the cost of service which is already low compared to other means.

The flight was a breakthrough in terms of proving the year-round capability of the Airbus Zephyr, as Chris Kelleher, the Technical Director of the Airbus HAPS programme, said.

“While Zephyr 7 holds the world record for flight endurance and has flown continuously ten times longer than any other UAV, all previous long duration flights have been carried out in the summer months when the longer days, shorter nights and better weather make flights significantly easier.

This latest flight was undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere winter so the aircraft had to show it could remain operational through the longer nights, re-charge sufficiently in the shorter periods of daylight and cope with the harsher weather conditions.”

This most recent flight allowed over 250 hours of flight testing of the Zephyr 7 prototype, which will now be used to refine the final design of Zephyr 8, the next-generation HAPS vehicle currently being developed by Airbus.

In an article earlier this year, Space News’s Peter B. de Selding provided a perspective on the approach and the market:

Airbus Defence and Space on April 23 called for customer proposals for flight tests of a new-generation high-altitude “pseudo satellite,” or HAPS, that would enhance the capability of the company’s existing HAPS, which has been performing test flights since mid-2013.

The announcement comes less than two weeks after Google announced its purchase of U.S.-based Titan Aerospace, which is designing its own HAPS for future use as an Internet relay and an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform.

Facebook has announced its interest in high-altitude platforms for Internet relay in areas without broadband.

An Airbus spokesman said the company hopes to elicit customer interest in a HAPS whose basic design has already flown, which has received flight test certification from four flight test sites in the United States, Europe and Australia, and whose enhanced version could be in the air in 2015.

Airbus said its Zephyr 8 HAPS would have expanded night-flight range compared with the Zephyr 7 demonstrator, which flew at 21,000 meters for two weeks on solar power only in 2013.

Airbus purchased the Zephyr technology from QinetiQ of Britain in mid-2013 and since then has been using Airbus’ in-house toolbox, from its satellite and defense electronics divisions, to add performance.

HAPS are designed as platforms located between lower-flying drones and satellites.

Advances in solar-cell efficiency, battery autonomy and onboard sensors have made credible — if the Google purchase is any guide — a technology that has been talked about for years.

Airbus has been working on HAPS since 2008 and has since created an in-house team, led by Jens Federhen, that borrows from the company’s satellite and aviation-technology divisions.

The HAPS work is now embedded in the Airbus Unmanned Aerial Vehicle business unit.

“We are now building the next generation of Airbus Zephyr that will allow customers to test payloads and applications,” Federhen said in a statement. “We are ready and look forward to demonstrating its unique capabilities to customers in flight.”