After setting ultra-endurance record, Army Zephyr drone keeps flying, whether it wants to or not

Zephyr flies at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground— and beyond

The Zephyr high-altitude platform broke its own world record for longest duration UAS flight during recent experimentation with the Army. (Courtesy photo via DVIDS)

WASHINGTON: For the last 37 days an unsettling, spindly figure has been loitering far, far above us Earthlings, but it’s not a UFO for the Pentagon’s new “All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office” to investigate. It’s an Army unmanned aircraft in the midst of setting an endurance flight world record — and no one, including the Army, knows exactly when it’ll come down. 

The Army announced Thursday that its ultra-long endurance, stratospheric, unmanned air system known as the Zephyr had been flying for 36 days and counting, demolishing its previous 26-day record. But it’s still up there in the sky over Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., where it will remain until the weather conditions are “ideal” to bring it down, an Army spokesperson told Breaking Defense today.

Since June 15, the Army’s Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing/Space (APNT/Space) Cross-Functional Team, has been experimenting with the Airbus-made Zephyr’s high-altitude capabilities as the service searches for new high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

According to a press release from Army Futures Command, the ongoing flight demonstrated the energy storage capacity, battery life, solar panel efficiency and station-keeping abilities that will “will further the Army’s goal to implement ultra-long endurance stratospheric UAS capabilities.” The Zephyr, which has an 82-foot wingspan and weighs just 165 pounds, can fly “around” 70,000 feet, according to maker Airbus’s website.

“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,” said Michael Monteleone, director of the APNT/Space CFT.  “We have seen incredible progress in high-altitude platforms 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.”

The Zephyr completed a series of firsts during the recent experiment, including its first flight into international airspace, first flight over water, longest continuous flight using satellite communication controls and the farthest demonstration from its launch point, while carrying a commercial, off-the-shelf payload, according to the Army.

The experimentation was done with the APNT-CFT, which cooperated with combatant commands, the Army’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Task Force and U.S. Army Program Executive Office – Aviation.

Assuming the aircraft lands at some point, the Army has a second flight scheduled in “coming weeks” over the Pacific. That flight will “demonstrate an Army Futures Command (AFC)-developed prototype payload over multiple combatant commands, and continue to inform high altitude requirements,” the release said.

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