A solar-powered aircraft built by Airbus broke the record for longest continuous flight this week. If the unmanned Zephyr S had stayed aloft for just three minutes longer, it would have flown for exactly 26 days.
By harnessing the sun’s rays, the drone was able to power its two propellers during the day and store power in its onboard battery unit to be used at night. At a cruising altitude of 70,000 feet, the aircraft flies well above the level of commercial airliners and inclement weather.
Airbus has been working on its Zephyr S drone since at least 2015, with the goal of providing a cheaper and more versatile replacement for satellites. The drone weighs only 165 pounds, about as much as a single person, and is powered by an 80-foot wingspan covered in solar panels. At high altitudes, Zephyr is uninterrupted by cloud cover or other air traffic, and can fly for months at a time.
Zephyr launched on its maiden voyage on July 11 and only recently touched down again, and Airbus says this long-duration flight is only the beginning. In the future, Airbus hopes to run much longer missions, starting later this year.
With this technology, plenty of governments, companies, and organizations have a cheaper option than satellites. Airbus envisions Zephyr used for airborne monitoring of disaster zones, long-term environmental studies, and even bringing wireless internet to underserved areas. The company is also developing a more advanced version of the Zephyr that’s twice the size and capable of carrying larger payloads.