Army’s Zephyr drone still in the air after 50 days

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The Army’s experimental ultra-long-endurance Zephyr S unmanned aerial system, which first lifted off on its last record-breaking mission in June, is still flying over the Arizona desert and is expected to continue to fly for at least a week.

The stratospheric Zephyr UAS lifted off on June 15 from Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) on what was originally expected to be a 30-day flight. It’s now been in the air for 50 days and “continues to perform beyond expectations,” said Madeline Winkler, spokeswoman for the Army’s Assured Precision Navigation and Timing (APNT) cross-functional team (CFT). Futures Command. The war zone in an email yesterday. Online flight tracking sites showed the plane’s flight pattern plotted a “50” over Arizona’s Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to YPG, as it passed this number of flight days.

Zephyr’s flight path when it passed the 50-day mark on August 4, 2022. ADS-B exchange

Built by Airbus, Zephyr S is powered by the sun, with solar panels covering the upper surfaces of its 75ft wingspan. Weighing around 165 pounds in total, the aircraft carries batteries that are charged during the day to power flight at night. Zephyr set the sustained UAS flight record – 26 days – on that same mission and has now nearly doubled that benchmark. The plane flew from Arizona to Belize over the Gulf of Mexico earlier in its ongoing groundbreaking test.

Still buzzing in the skies above Arizona on its current flight, Zephyr S is now approaching 60 days without landing, the goal originally set for its next test flight.

Zephyr can cruise at 60,000 feet. Airbus

Zephyr S is designed to fly in the stratosphere, at altitudes above commonly used flight levels. It mostly dragged around 60,000 feet, like where the RQ-4 Global Hawks roam. Although it can fly fairly quietly at this height, taking the prototype through the most turbulent troposphere – the area up to about 35,000 feet above the earth – apparently poses risks to the aircraft.

“Zephyr was specifically designed for ultra-long endurance stratospheric flight, and as you’d expect, weather conditions in the stratosphere are very different from what they are in the troposphere,” Winkler said. “Since this is a prototype aircraft, a very careful approach is taken in determining how long to fly the aircraft and exactly when to land.”

At stratospheric altitude, Zephyr S has many practical military applications. It can carry any number of payloads, including electro-optical/infrared and hyperspectral cameras, radars with passive frequency and synthetic aperture imaging functionality, other airborne early warning equipment, systems laser imaging detection and ranging (Lidar) and automatic identification system (AIS) transponders, according to Airbus. Communications relay payloads – acting as a pseudo-satellite or some sort of high-flying cellphone tower – are also a key capability being considered for the system, as are those that would aid navigation in operating environments. without GPS. The military did not specify which payload is currently on the plane.

Zephyr is solar-powered and rides on wings that span 75 feet from tip to tip. Airbus

The current Zephyr S flight was designed to test the aircraft’s energy storage capacity, battery longevity, solar panel efficiency, and its ability to stay on a prescribed station. He has already achieved several firsts in his career, including the first flight in international airspace, the first flight over water, the longest continuous flight using satellite communication commands and the most away from its launch point, while carrying a commercial, off-the-shelf payload.

“Ultra-long-endurance unmanned platforms have the potential to provide significant military capabilities and increased confidence as part of the military’s diverse multi-layered architecture,” said Michael Monteleone, director of APNT/ SpaceCFT. “We have seen incredible advancements in high altitude platforms in recent years. This experimentation allows us to build on this knowledge by demonstrating multiple payload types, fully exploring the military utility of stratospheric operations, and modernizing the areas of deep sensing, long-range targeting, and resilient communications. »

Zephyr weighs around 165 pounds. Airbus

A second Zephyr flight is planned “in the coming weeks” over the Pacific Ocean, although it is unclear if the schedule for this flight will extend as the aircraft remained airborne. This flight was the one planned to test if the plane could stay in the air for 60 days, so it may be superfluous at this stage. The second flight was intended to demonstrate a prototype payload, developed by Army Futures Command, on multiple combatant commands, and to further inform high-altitude requirements, the Army said.

A UAS that can carry virtually any payload – within a certain weight threshold – and stay airborne for very long periods of time at low cost would be an important capability for an army on the move in austere environments. Without the expense and complexity of launching a satellite, a high-flying Zephyr could gather intelligence, spy on enemy positions, and act as a communications node linking troops, ships, aircraft, and command posts deployed across the globe. ahead over long distances.

A slow, defenseless drone would be easy prey for enemy fighters or air defense systems, but Zephyr or a similar ultralight, super-efficient unmanned aerial vehicle is a relatively inexpensive method of establishing a multi-layered communications infrastructure on the fly. of battle using system levels of various shapes and sizes. It’s not clear how detectable it is, by the way.

The endurance shown in the current test is ideal for operations in the vast Pacific Ocean, where the US military plans to step up its presence to counter Chinese expansionism in the region. But really, it could be used anywhere. Persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR, is often at the top of the wish lists of combatant commanders like outgoing Africa Command Chief General Stephen J. Townsend. As Defense Daily Matthew Beinart recently reported that long-lasting surveillance systems are essential to keep tabs on the vast African continent. A UAS like Zephyr might do the trick.

We’ll keep you posted on Zephyr’s historic mission. Stay tuned.

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