It's already a record-breaking aircraft, but Airbus Defense and Space believes the latest iteration of its Zephyr UAV may be about to rewrite the future of air and space surveillance.

Zephyr, the lightweight (50kg), high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) platform, set records for flight duration (14 days, 22 mins, 8 secs) and altitude (70,743 ft.) during a test sortie that took place at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, in 2010. Since then the system, along with almost the entire complement of staff working on its 14-year development, have been acquired by Airbus from original manufacturer Qinetiq and it is being marketed as a new category of hybrid vehicle, somewhere between aircraft and spacecraft, which Airbus calls HAPS (High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite).

“Satellites are brilliant at global coverage, but they have a problem with persistence,” explains Paul Brooks, Airbus D&S's head of HAPS business development. “Aircraft are good for local stuff, but they're not very persistent and they're very local. Astrium with their expertise in UAVs and satellites was starting to look at the gap between the two. Meanwhile, Qinetiq had Zephyr, and they were saying, 'Well, we're an R&D house: we're not quite sure how this fits in.' So in 2013 we took Zephyr into Airbus and married the two together. Basically, Zephyr is a satellite with wings.”

The Zephyr story began in 2001, when a team working on a Qinetiq high-altitude balloon project needed photographs of their inflatable at its planned operating altitude of 130,000 ft. A team led by Chris Kelleher proposed a 14.7 kg., 12-meter span aircraft, tethered to the balloon, to operate as a camera platform. The aircraft was built, but never flew because the balloon failed on launch. In 2003, the concept was revived and a program started to inform concepts for persistent surveillance, in collaboration with the UK's Ministry of Defence. This led to a first flight in 2004.

The name Zephyr was chosen for historical reasons. The original Zephyr was a biplane built in 1923 at the same Farnborough site where today's Zephyr team works.

“After the First World War, scientists and engineers were not allowed to design and build aeroplanes because there were too many aircraft,” says Kelleher, who is the program's technical director and lead designer. “So they carried on in their spare time, and the first one they built was called the Zephyr. I thought it was appropriate to show respect to them.”

Zephyr 7 – the sixth iteration, given that Zephyr 1 was that 1923 aircraft – was the version that set those records in 2010. It has continued to make important and precedent-setting sorties. In a flight last year conducted in co-operation with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Zephyr was operated close to a major civilian airport, through the tower, without disrupting airport operations. Also last year, it achieved type certification via the UK's Military Aviation Authority, which issued it the registration PS-1 (denoting the first pseudo-satellite on the register).

Airbus intends to offer Zephyr both as a system available for sale, or as a capability that can be leased. The first Zephyr 8 airframe is currently being built at Farnborough, and the company plans a "constellation" of four of the aircraft, which can be deployed to suitable launch locations for responsive and reactive tasking. Each can fly a payload of up to 5 kg. for a theoretically indefinite time. Potential applications leverage the combination of satellite-like persistence and the real-time responsiveness of an aircraft: these include providing communications relays following a natural disaster, or offering long-term surveillance of a specific target area.