A new class of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is on the rise: the prayer mantis-like creatures called High-altitude pseudo-satellites (HAPS). These are solar-electric propeller-driven drones resembling classic air gliders. The most widely known of the HAPS lineup is the Airbus/Qinetiq Zephyr. According to its maker it is “the first unmanned aircraft of its kind to fly in the stratosphere, Zephyr harnesses the sun’s rays, running exclusively on solar power, above the weather and conventional air traffic. It is a HAPS: a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite, able to fly for months at a time, combining the persistence of a satellite with the flexibility of a UAV“.
In a recent test it did shown persistence: it flew for 25 days straight during a test-flight. In the daylight it is able to recharge its batteries and in the nighttime it runs on these batteries, while losing some altitude. It is a slow-moving craft optimized for loitering over the battlefield long enough to provide electro-optical or signals intelligence for the troops or the commanders.
What makes this ‘flying computer’ a novelty is the ability to recharge itself by solar panels and its ability to operate in the stratosphere where the chances to be spotted and getting shot down is low. While it is only a package of 75 or 140 kilograms it has a price tag of 6 million USD – which is way more expensive than a single high-altitude surface-to-air missile capable of bringing it down, so I might missed the maths 🙂 Or its main use is not against foes with well-equipped forces?
According to what ex-defense secretary Michael Fallon said: “Zephyr is a cutting edge, record-breaking piece of kit that will be capable of gathering constant, reliable information over vast geographical areas at a much greater level of detail than ever before“.
At the same time it has been said that “Zephyr utilizes a wide range of innovative technologies with the aim of delivering a world leading disruptive capability” – by Defence Equipment and Support Chief Executive, Tony Douglas.
Well, I don’t know wanna know what they mean by “world leading disruptive capability“, but it seems that pretty soon we’ll have an array of flying computers… optimized to every altitude and scenario.