Regardless of opinions on their use, the biggest technical flaw of drones has always been a lack of battery power for handling longer flights. Satellites, on the other hand, have never suffered from endurance concerns but they’re operational longevity carries a substantial price tag.
Airbus hopes their Zephyr 7 has simultaneously solved both problems, and with applications that extend beyond military use. The Zephyr is described as a High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) that runs exclusively on solar power.
Military and communications applications are no-brainers. However, the drone-like functionality that makes HAPS easier to navigate and leads to them dwelling in elevations closer to the ground also translates to clearer transmission and quicker re-positioning capabilities.
So in responding to natural disasters, developing warning systems for bad weather, or in sharing information on almost anything, the ability to relay information more quickly and more clearly could have far-reaching societal benefits.
The Zephyr operates above cloud level and at nearly twice the altitude of commercial airliners. This is beneficial because of its proximity to the object it’s looking to monitor; necessity because of the way its constructed.
The Zephyr’s low-cost, easy-to-maneuver construct also means it’s not overly durable. A wingspan in the neighborhood of 100’ is supported by a total weight of under 300 pounds. So even though its constructed of carbon fiber, the Zephyr is not suited to handle the higher wind speeds found closer to the ground.
Right now the Zephyr can last about two weeks before needing attention - a significant improvement for drones. An on-going challenge, however, will be how to keep it flying once the sun sets, although an innovative wing design does provide additional lift that helps conserve power.
The Zephyr S is now in production, with the first order coming from the UK’s Ministry of Defense. They reportedly shelled out about $15 million for the drone … satellite ... High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite.