Gossamer wings take solar Airbus drone to world record height

October 13, 2021
The Zephyr in Arizona. Photo: Airbus

Eat your heart out Icarus —  the Airbus Zephyr S is not only flying closer to the sun but it’s staying up there for extended missions.

While it looks like a gust of strong wind would be its undoing, the solar-powered Zephyr is proving its mettle after a successful test campaign saw it establish a new world altitude record during a creditable 36 days of stratospheric flight.

The Airbus experimental drone‘s new world record for this class of unmanned aerial system (UAS) saw it reach an astonishing 76,100ft.

The Arizona test campaign of what Airbus calls its “High Altitude Platform System” (HAPS)  was the most ambitious yet and involved four low-level test flights and two stratospheric flights.

READ: Boeing set to launch 777XF at Dubai Air Show?

The stratospheric flights flew for around 18 days each, totaling more than 36 days adding a further 887 flight hours to the 2,435 stratospheric flight hours the aircraft has accumulated so far.


The carbon-neutral UAS uses sunlight to recharge its batteries and is designed to remain in the stratosphere for months at a time.

Airbus predicts it will bring “see, sense and connect capabilities”  to both commercial and military customers and has the potential to revolutionize disaster management, including monitoring the spread of wildfires or oil spills.

It marked, according to Airbus, significant progress for a fixed-wing HAPS and a step towards making the stratosphere an operational reality for its customers.

The flights exercised US Federal Aviation Administration flight approvals operating inside the National Airspace System and included a payload that allowed it to stream Earth observation data.

Airbus said the Optical Advanced Earth Observation System was part of a customer focus aimed at demonstrating how  Zephyr could be used for future operations, flying outside of restricted airspace and over airspace shared with commercial air traffic.

“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, the future capability group head at the procurement arm of the UK Ministry of Defence.

“This summer’s activities represent an important step towards operationalizing the stratosphere.”

Airbus UAS head Jana Rosenmann Zephyr had demonstrated “credible and proven ultra-persistence, stratospheric agility, and payload interoperability”.

“It is a sustainable, solar-powered, ISR and network extending solution that can provide vital future connectivity and earth observation to where it is needed,”  she said.