WASHINGTON – The solar-powered Zephyr drone beat its own record for time spent aloft as an uncrewed aircraft system, with 36 days completed so far, and counting, according to Army Futures Command.
AFC’s Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing/Space Cross-Functional Team launched the aircraft on June 15 and it remains deployed some 70,000 feet over Arizona. The pilotless aircraft previously set the longevity record at about 26 days in 2018.
The first stratospheric UAS of its kind, Zephyr can fly continuously for months at a time, far above weather and conventional air traffic. It has a wingspan of just over 82 feet — longer than 2 school buses placed end-to-end, but weighs less than 166 pounds.
The test aims to assess the aircraft’s durability and energy storage capacity. Powered by solar energy, the Zephyr is considered a performance heavyweight in ultra-light aircraft. It can be used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, with a wide visual payload coverage of 20 by 30 kilometers (12.4-18.6 miles). The drone can also be equipped with radar, lidar and infrared technologies to expand its capabilities.
Michael Monteleone, the director of the APNT/Space CFT, said there has been significant progress in the development high-altitude platforms such as Zephyr in recent years.
“This experimentation allows us to build on that knowledge by demonstrating multiple payload types, fully exploring the military utility of stratospheric operations, and modernizing areas of deep sensing, long-range targeting and resilient communications,” he said in a statement. “Ultra-long endurance unmanned platforms have the potential to provide significant military capabilities and enhanced confidence as part of the Army’s diversified multi-layered architecture.”
As part of the test, the Zephyr completed its first venture into “international airspace” and over water, the statement said. It also marked the aircraft’s longest continuous flight using satellite communication controls.
A second Zephyr flight will launch in the coming weeks and travel over the Pacific Ocean. It will study the Zephyr’s ability to carry a payload designed by AFC over multiple combatant commands.
Catherine Buchaniec is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where she covers artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and uncrewed technologies.