Space tech giant Airbus is celebrating the opening of its official testing location for its all-electric, solar-powered high altitude aircraft, the Zephyr HAPS at a remote outback airport in Western Australia.
The Zephyr HAPS, an unmanned “high-altitude pseudo-satellite” that can cruise altitudes of 21km for months at a time, will be tested from the site at Wyndham which is surrounded by mostly unrestricted airspace and relatively consistent weather conditions, making it ideal as a testing site.
The aircraft’s maiden flight in August 2018 from Arizona, USA, saw it fly non-stop for 25 days, making it the world’s longest ever solar flight.
WA premier Mark McGowan said in a statement, “I am delighted to welcome the Airbus team and their Zephyr project to Western Australia. This is the culmination of almost a year of hard work by Airbus and my Government to bring this exciting and innovative technology to our state.”
“The Zephyr aircraft provides new capabilities to commercial and military customers and will bring an economic boost to the East Kimberley region,” he said.
The high altitude and extended flight capabilities of the Zephyr HAPS will make it ideal to fill a niche that exists between satellites and lower altitude aircraft such as UAVs, bringing persistent surveillance and communications to even the remotest parts of the world.
“The official opening of the Airbus Wyndham launch site in Western Australia, the world’s first operational HAPS site, marks the start of a new era for Zephyr,” said Jana Rosenmann, head of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Airbus in a statement.
“We are proud to see Australia become part of the Zephyr operational network. The site is our gateway to the stratosphere and will be the main flight base for Zephyr going forward.”
The Zephyr HAPS trumps other options such as weather balloons with its ability to land and be redeployed again and again.
If the idea of stratospheric “eyes in the skies” sparks a concern for some, Airbus is keen to emphasise the potential of improved disaster management, and monitoring of the planet’s changing environment as well as catastrophic events such as wildfires and oil spills.