Airbus’ solar-powered aircraft Zephyr completes two 18-day flights 76,100ft above Earth, setting a new world record for altitude – and could offer cheaper internet to billions of people worldwide in the near future

  • Two successful 18-day flights by Airbus’ Zephyr craft took place in the stratosphere over the US this summer
  • The unmanned aircraft is powered by solar energy thanks to specially designed panels across its wingspan
  • Airbus is working with Ministry of Defence to ‘operationalise the stratosphere’ for surveillance-related tasks

Aerospace firm Airbus has completed two 18-day stratospheric flights of its solar-powered aircraft, called Zephyr, 76,100 feet above the Earth.  

Zephyr’s solar powered test flights in the stratosphere – the second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere – set a new world record for altitude this summer, Airbus says.

The firm now wants to deploy the ‘high altitude pseudo-satellite’ (HAPS) for surveillance and beaming broadband down to remote areas that don’t have internet. 

Zephyr, an UAV with two small propellers, is powered exclusively by the Sun, thanks to solar panels lining its whole 82-foot wingspan. 

It’s typically hand-launched by four to five ground crew, fast-walking or jogging into a light wind, but it features on-board software for remote navigation.   

Zephyr completed two 18-day flights this summer above the US, Airbus confirmed. The unmanned aerial vehicle is powered by the Sun, thanks to solar panels lining its whole wingspan

‘Pioneering the stratosphere’: The test flights set a new world record for altitude – and could offer cheaper internet to billions of people worldwide in the near future


The Zephyr has been built by Airbus Defence and Space engineers.

It is powered by the sun during the day, which also recharges its lithium-sulphur batteries to power it by night. 

Its huge 25m wingspan means it can be launched by four military personnel on their shoulders.

The ‘psuedo-satellite’ can fly at more than 70,000 feet – twice the altitude of a commercial airliner. 

British military forces will use the high-tech aircraft to monitor targets on the ground from anywhere in the world. 

Just one Zephyr provides the coverage of 250 cell towers, so the aircraft therefore saves space on the ground that would otherwise be taken up by bulky infrastructure. 

At more than 75,000 feet, Zephyr flies higher than commercial planes (usually up to 40,000 feet), but lower than satellites (200 miles). 

Its wingspan of 82 feet (25 metres) is just one third the width of the firm’s A380 used for commercial flights, and weighs less than 75kg.

When fully rolled out for clients, it will be cheaper and easier to control than satellites, as well as landed and repurposed for a different mission. 

And as it uses sunlight to fly and recharge its batteries, it uses no fuel and produces no carbon emissions. Secondary batteries charge in daylight power overnight flight. 

Zephyr could soon be spending around six months in the air at a time, according to Jana Rosenmann, head of unmanned aerial systems at Airbus.

‘We have ambitions to be going for periods of months, up to six months,’ she told the PA news agency.

‘Our batteries are really performing extremely well. I think we’re confident right now about (reaching) three months and I would say that going for six months on this air vehicle would not be a problem. 

Wingspan: 82 feet (25 metres)

Weight: Less than 75kg 

Altitude: 75,000 feet 

Energy source: Solar 

Use cases: Military, broadband, crop and wildfire monitoring, disaster recovery, border protection 

‘Have we proved that operationally? No, not yet. 

‘But all the steps we have been doing in our lab tests are clearly indicating that we are on a very good path.’ 

Zephyr’s second test touched down on September 13 in Arizona, in a demonstration for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 

‘Working with Airbus and the Zephyr team during the 2021 flight campaign, significant progress has been made towards demonstrating HAPS as a capability,’ said James Gavin, head of future capability group, MoD.

‘This summer’s activities represent an important step towards operationalising the stratosphere.’ 

The campaign consisted of six flights in total – four low level test flights and two stratospheric flights. 

The stratospheric flights flew for around 18 days each, totaling more than 36 days of stratospheric flight in the campaign. 

This adds a further 887 flight hours to the 2,435 stratospheric flight hours for Zephyr to date. 

The flight campaign aimed to demonstrate how Zephyr could be used for future operations, flying outside of restricted airspace and over airspace shared with commercial air traffic, away from clouds and jetstreams. 

Zephyr is typically hand-launched by four to five ground crew, who fast-walk or jog into a light wind, but it features on-board software for remote navigation 

The company is also pitching it for use in disaster zones, and other areas where real-time information is needed.

Airbus says it could revolutionise disaster management, for example, including monitoring the spread of wildfires or oil spills. 

‘It provides persistent surveillance, tracing the world’s changing environmental landscape and will be able to provide communications to the most unconnected parts of the world,’ the firm says. 

Airbus’ Zephyr plane at night. The Aerospace giant has tested the solar-powered aircraft that it hopes can bring the internet to some of the billions of unconnected people around the world

Zephyr’s new record-breaking test flights for altitude broke previous records set by the craft in previous years. 

But in August 2018, Zephyr S managed to set a world record in its maiden voyage for time in-flight without refueling. 

It was able to stay 70,000 feet in the air for 25 days, 23 hours and seven minutes, setting a record for the longest continuous flight in Earth’s atmosphere.    

According to reports in 2019, Facebook was working on test flights of Zephyr in Australia. 

The social media giant had had plans to provide internet connectivity to people worldwide, as part of its so-called Aquila project. 

In 2018, Facebook grounded Aquila following ‘significant internal turmoil’ at the company, but said it would continue to pursue partnerships with firms like Airbus. 


Project Aquila was once a big part of Facebook’s plans to provide an internet connection to people worldwide.

It aimed to build a fleet of internet-beaming, solar-powered drones that had the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and weighed the same as a family car.

The drones, flying at 65,000ft (19,800 metres), would be capable of staying in the air for months at a time.

Project Aquila aimed to build a fleet of internet-beaming, solar-powered drones that had the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and weighed the same as a family car. Pictured is one of the firm’s prototype vehicles

They were relatively cheap and would be most effective for suburban areas that do not have the cables or infrastructure to carry internet or telephone signals.

The internet access would be transmitted in the form of free-space optical communication, or FSO, which transmits data using infrared laser beams.

Facebook envisaged hundreds of these electric-powered drones firing laser-guided internet access to remote corners of the world.

Launched in 2014, the Aquila team twice flew a prototype drone, though the craft suffered a broken wing as it came in to land during one test flight.

In June 2018, Facebook announced it was scrapping the project in favour of new deals with aerospace firms like Airbus. 

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