America Is Taking the Lead in Space Drone Development

A high-altitude “satellite” drone known as the Zephyr just touched down on Earth after setting a number of records for continuous flight by an unmanned aerial aircraft.  The Zephyr managed to stay airborne for 64 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes, a prodigious feat made possible by its state-of-the-art solar-powered batteries that allow the craft to continually recharge itself in mid-air, extending its flight time indefinitely.

The French aircraft firm Airbus, in conjunction with the US Army, has been experimenting with a series of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles like the Zephyr to determine whether drones might be able to function as semi-permanent satellites able to provide ongoing telecommunications and surveillance support at altitudes of 70,000 feet or more.

Other countries, including China and South Korea, are also promoting the development of “space” drones, though in China’s case, the primary purpose is to further its strategic military ambitions.  South Korea, in early 2021, tested a drone that flew into the stratosphere, an altitude above 30,000 feet, and lasted 13 days in flight.  At the time Seoul touted the accomplishment as “historic” but the joint Airbus-US Army program has been pushing the boundaries of drone flight into previously unexplored realms for months.

The Zephyr’s 82-foot wide fuselage resembles less an aircraft than a prehistoric bird.  It’s also constructed entirely from light-weight composite carbon fiber, which allows it to weigh in at a mere 165 lbs..  Still, according to Airbus designers, the Zephyr is sturdy enough to carry payloads of 50 lbs. or more.  The recently tested model will eventually come equipped with optical, infrared LIDAR and hyperspectral sensors, among other fancy gadgets. With its advanced video surveillance capability, the Zephyr might surveil a ground area of 150 square miles, making it ideal for maritime or border security operations, officials say.

The Zephyr’s recently concluded flight very nearly broke the world record for continuous flight by an aircraft – manned or unmanned – set nearly 65 years ago by two men who took off in their twin-propeller Cessna Skyhawk 172 on December 4, 1958 and touched down on February 7, 1959.  Their flight – largely confined to the airspace over Las Vegas, NV – lasted 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes – about 4 hours longer than the Zephyr’s.

Officials at Airbus and the US Army – who have previously touted numerous records broken by the Zephyr – initially refused to comment on why their own historic flight ended when it did.  However, after evidence emerged that the craft may have suddenly malfunctioned and crashed officials did acknowledge that the Zephyr descended to the ground “unexpectedly.”  Despite this apparent mishap, the Zephyr program is just getting started.  Officials are currently examining the 1,500 hours of images collected by the craft and have already declared its mission a “success.”

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