Amid Google and Facebook Interest, Airbus Eyes High-altitude “Pseudo Satellite” Enhancements

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PARIS — Airbus Defence and Space on April 23 called for customer proposals for flight tests of a new-generation high-altitude “pseudo satellite,” or HAPS, that would enhance the capability of the company’s existing HAPS, which has been performing test flights since mid-2013.

The announcement comes less than two weeks after Google announced its purchase of U.S.-based Titan Aerospace, which is designing its own HAPS for future use as an Internet relay and an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. Facebook has announced its interest in high-altitude platforms for Internet relay in areas without broadband.

An Airbus spokesman said the company hopes to elicit customer interest in a HAPS whose basic design has already flown, which has received flight test certification from four flight test sites in the United States, Europe and Australia, and whose enhanced version could be in the air in 2015.

Airbus said its Zephyr 8 HAPS would have expanded night-flight range compared with the Zephyr 7 demonstrator, which flew at 21,000 meters for two weeks on solar power only in 2013.

Airbus purchased the Zephyr technology from QinetiQ of Britain in mid-2013 and since then has been using Airbus’ in-house toolbox, from its satellite and defense electronics divisions, to add performance.

HAPS are designed as platforms located between lower-flying drones and satellites. Advances in solar-cell efficiency, battery autonomy and onboard sensors have made credible — if the Google purchase is any guide — a technology that has been talked about for years.

Airbus has been working on HAPS since 2008 and has since created an in-house team, led by Jens Federhen, that borrows from the company’s satellite and aviation-technology divisions. The HAPS work is now embedded in the Airbus Unmanned Aerial Vehicle business unit.

“We are now building the next generation of Airbus Zephyr that will allow customers to test payloads and applications,” Federhen said in a statement. “We are ready and look forward to demonstrating its unique capabilities to customers in flight.”

The Airbus spokesman declined to provide technical specifications of Zephyr 8, and said the vehicle’s capabilities would be tailored to the diverse requirements of prospective customers. Earth observation, border surveillance, maritime patrol and Internet connectivity are among the potential applications.

 

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