Solar Powered Aircraft

No More Flight Shame – Is Commercial Clean Flying In Our Future?

Are you concerned about what your air miles are doing to our earth? Is there such a thing as clean flying?

Frequent travel by jetting off to Bali, New York, or Paris has lost its glamorous appeal, as even jet-setters have begun swapping planes for trains. From the moment Greta Thunberg thundered on our screens, the Swedish concept of “flygskam” or”flight shame” began dispersing.

But rather than imagining a future where either earth is engulfed in fiery flames, or that we live in a world that is hard to navigate as it was a century ago, we must change the kind of aircraft we use.

The sun’s rays bathe our world with vast amounts of energy, approximately 885 million megawatt-hours each year. Scientists are speculating that cleaner flying is less than a decade away.

At Airbus, they function to harvest this alternative renewable energy supply to power cleaner and high-endurance stratospheric flight. They are taking uncrewed aerial vehicles to the stratosphere.

Today, Airbus is progressing solar cell technology to enable clean flying using uncrewed aerial vehicles to remain in the stratosphere for prolonged periods — using only sunlight as energy.

The job in solar clean flying is focused on:

  • Producing advanced photovoltaic solar panels which are lighter, more flexible, and capable of getting more energy per m2 of surface,
  • Converting captured solar energy to electrical energy to power an electric propulsion system and other onboard equipment,
  • They are harnessing solar power to a rechargeable power storage system, thereby allowing clean flying for the aircraft through the night with unlimited autonomy.


The flagship program, Zephyr, is a high-altitude pseudo-satellite that is powered exclusively by clean solar energy.  Zephyr is the top solar-electric stratospheric UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) internationally, weighs less than 75kg, and with a wingspan of 25m.

Having already taken to the stratosphere and surpassing other world records,  Zephyr is an innovative solution for clean flying currently under development by Airbus.  Zephyr will bring new views, sense, and connect capabilities to commercial, military, and institutional clients.

Zephyr depends on solar power, with secondary charged batteries to power overnight flight. Due to the Zephyr’s flight period is carbon neutral.  The first stratospheric UAS of its type, Zephyr, provides a persistent and flexible solution, unlike other uncrewed aircraft.

Its persistence allows a capability of flying continuously for weeks at a time, at approximately 70,000 feet, over weather and conventional traffic. It’s a HAPS: a High Altitude Platform Station and is the sole HAPS to have shown day/night longevity in the stratosphere.

Zephyr addresses the requirement for an economical way to provide both persistence and broad satellite-like reach, in addition to the precision, station keeping, and re-tasking flexibility typically integrated into traditional drone systems.

Persistence: Zephyr’s persistent flight is unrivaled, combining a geostationary satellite’s persistence while still keeping the maneuverability similar to that of a conventional aircraft or UAS. Throughout a 2018 test flight Zephyr attained a record of 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes of endurance, without refueling.

Complimentary to existing solutions: Filling the gap between floor Towers, traditional aircraft, and tanks, Zephyr is positioned perfectly to complement and improve current infrastructure.

Latency: Zephyr is near enough to earth stations to have small latency and supply a near real-time support

Secure and safe: Zephyr has been at the forefront of integrating Stratospheric UAS to airspace, gaining military and civil approvals in five countries across four continents.

Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) Capabilities: Following take-off and ascent to the stratosphere within eight hours, Zephyr will reach the desired location, which might be hundreds or thousands of km away. Zephyr will be controlled by Ground Control Stations anywhere in the world using BLOS capabilities.

Zephyr Technical Features

  • Weight- Less than 75kg (165 lbs)
  • Wingspan- 25m (82 ft.)
  • Payload- Different levels of payload capacity with incremental performance levels

Zephyr is payload agnostic, reliable with OPAZ, Airbus in-house Earth Observation system intended for the stratosphere that offers 18cm electro-optical and 70cm infra-red videos and imagery. It’s compatible with Airbus Intelligence advanced processing capabilities. Zephyr is also able to incorporate 3rd party client-supplied payloads.

Zephyr can support a broad range of payload capabilities, including but not limited to: Infrared, Hyper-spectral, Electro-Optical, Passive Radio Frequency (RF) Radar, Early Warning, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) radar, Lidar and Automatic Identification System (AIS).


See & Sense

Zephyr has broad visual payload coverage of a 20 by 30km footprint that enables it to supply a selection of continuous surveillance to fulfill mission requirements in addition to high-resolution imagery and video capture for intelligence gathering.

Sensors located in the stratosphere can easily detect changes in the environment, collecting more precise data.


Did you know…?

  • Approximately four billion people across the world are unconnected.
  • Zephyr is capable of extending the capacity or reach of terrestrial networks.
  • One Zephyr has coverage equal to that of 250 mobile towers.
  • Zephyr has the capability to provide communications to the most unconnected areas of the world. No other aerial solution provides direct-to-device 4G/5G on a daily day and night basis, complementary to current infrastructure.

The Airbus Zephyr, Solar High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS), achieves a successful new test flight campaign in Arizona, USA.

Airbus Defense and Space have successfully finished a new test flight campaign because of its Zephyr High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) in Arizona, USA.

The 2020 flight effort succeeded despite global slowdowns because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It centered on aircraft agility, management, and operations to build upon past campaigns, which have already demonstrated that the night and day stratospheric endurance of the unmanned aerial system (UAS) required in military and industrial markets.


This year’s campaign, held during the first three weeks of November, demonstrated functional flexibility and aircraft agility, especially testing lower altitude flying and early phase transition into the stratosphere. Additionally, it enabled the validation of a new flight planning tool package and operational concepts through multiple, diverse flights in short series.

“Having known stratospheric flight, we continue to develop the operating system further to be more flexible and powerful to satisfy our customer needs. The results of this effort are a valuable contribution to the complete flight program next year,” stated Jana Rosenmann, Head of Unmanned Aerial Systems in Airbus.

The campaign group used a Zephyr aircraft, fitted with new software Control systems and flight evaluation instruments, also associated lighter test aircraft with running multiple successful test flights throughout November.

The flights demonstrated the take-off climb, cruise, updated flight control, and descent stages, followed by successful landings. The aims of the test effort were all attained, showcasing a more flexible and capable aircraft.

Zephyr is the globally leading, solar–electrical, stratospheric UAS (Unmanned Aerial System). It captures the sun’s beams, operating exclusively on solar energy, over the weather, and traditional air traffic, completing a capability gap-free to UAVs, satellites, and crewed aircraft to offer steadfast local satellite-like assistance.

With the completion of the year’s successful test flight effort, Zephyr has come one more step closer to an operational existence. Zephyr will bring new views, sense, and connect capabilities to both military and commercial customers alike. Zephyr will offer the capacity to revolutionize disaster management, including tracing the spread of wildfires or petroleum spills. It provides persistent surveillance, tracing the planet’s changing environmental landscape, and will have the ability to provide communications to the many unconnected areas of the world.

Already in July 2018, the Zephyr team ran a successful test flight effort when Zephyr S flew in the stratosphere almost 26 times (25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes‎).

It stays the longest flight duration of an aircraft ever produced without refueling. The aircraft dropped in the stratosphere night and day, always achieved a sunrise altitude of 60,000 feet in addition to its greatest elevation of 71,140ft.

Solar Impulse 2

Andre Borschberg has spent the last five years building solar-powered airplanes –and flying them around the world–to promote clean flying technology. He created the Solar Impulse Two with a group of engineers to prove to the world that fuel-free flying was easier to achieve compared to the industry would have us believe.


“Solar Impulse is an electric airplane, such as the Telsa,” he explains, on The telephone from Zurich. “And the power supply comes through batteries or via the utilization of solar planes. When the panels are not triggered, say at night, it is an electric plane. With the solar panels, it has infinite endurance, so long as there is sunlight, so it can fly indefinitely –something which you can achieve only if you utilize renewable energy.”

Along with his associate Bertrand Piccard, Borschberg was operating on this project for almost two decades. It took them 15 years to gather the technical team and raise the US$170 million that they had to finance the project. Their first invention came in 2010 when Borschberg became the first person to fly a solar-powered airplane at night with no fuel due to their innovative use of battery technologies. Later that year, the group flew an airplane across Switzerland. In 2011, they flew to Belgium and France–by 2013, and they left it to the United States. In 2018, they had circumnavigated the planet.

“It seems like an amazing gift to see that the sun’s rays and understand they are heating the solar panels that are keeping you up in the air –it’s an extraordinary feeling; a sense of freedom,” states Borschberg. “It is very quiet, like being in a glider which could climb. The one thing I can relate it to is being like a Telsa, where there are no vibrations and sound, two features that make it a different experience to fuel-based driving or flying.”

The central aim of the job was to protect the environment, but they’re also enthusiastic about job creation and about enabling individuals to travel the world for work, play, or just to see family–and being able to do this guilt-free. “When I am talking to the young generation, a lot simply say,’ I like to traveled flying, but I do not want to pollute the world,'” he explains. “That made me realize how big the need is and how it will be growing with time.”

The two of them expect that their uncrewed airplane will be a way to showcase what is possible with new technology–and that their invention will change how commercial airliners fly.

The Solar Impulse Two Technical Characteristics

  • Weighs 2.4 tons
  • The wingspan of 72m (236 ft.)

The wingspan is just like a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. But unlike a jumbo jet, it’s also equipped with 17,248 solar cells and equipped four batteries and four propellers.

“The world is changing, luckily,” he says, “but perhaps not as quickly as I’d have liked. It needs time to change the way we do things, and it’s in the interest of several businesses to maintain the world as it is today. Happily, people’s mindset is changing, which is important because young people, in particular, will induce the people to change. Changing the way our societies operate is like changing a tanker off its path –it’s possible, but it is not simple. In cases like this, moving away from fuel-based travel will want the joint effort of the general public and entrepreneurs.”

Borschberg thinks we can see the first commercially viable solar airplane in the next ten years. That will reduce noise and air pollution and the cost of traveling –and as climate change intensifies, it’s technology the world will be more than prepared for. But given it took Borschberg almost a year to circumnavigate the world just once–as at every one of their regular stops, they needed to wait for perfect weather until they flew — it still has some way to go.

“As we find ways to save electric energy, electric general aviation aircraft will develop. I believe gradually it will get too big aircraft,” Borschberg says. “However, to take a family vacation on an electric 747 jumbo jet, I believe it takes more time. But mark my words, it is going to happen. The world needs this technology–and finally, the younger generation has forced people to change their plans. I am quite happy to see political parties across the world realize that our climate must be put on top of every agenda.”

As the next generation of engineers graduate they will hopefully take on this new challenge of building clean energy airplanes.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.