A solar-powered aircraft has completed an 18-day test flight offering hope it could be used to create internet access for billions of unconnected people around the world.
Airbus sent its Zephyr, which resembles an unmanned glider but with two small propellers, into the stratosphere where it flew higher than planes but lower than satellites.
The Zephyr is more environmentally friendly than a satellite as it runs on solar power. It is also cheaper to operate, easier to control and can be landed and adapted for different missions.
The test flight touched down in Arizona on September 13.
Jana Rosenmann, head of unmanned aerial systems at Airbus, said there are hopes the aircraft can in the future remain airborne for “periods of months, up to six months”.
“Our batteries are really performing extremely well. I think we’re confident right now about [reaching] three months and I would say that going for six months on this air vehicle would not be a problem,” she said.
Ms Rosenmann said the Zephyr could open up the internet for people in areas with a lack of connectivity.
“I think it’s got huge potential to reach people that traditionally you’re not going to reach with fibre [broadband],” she said.
“There isn’t really a limit to reaching the unconnected population today, which is a vast community.”
Unicef data from 2020 shows two thirds of schoolchildren around the world, around 1.3 billion people, do not have an internet connection in their home.
This is preventing them from competing in the modern economy and isolating them from the rest of the world, Unicef said.
The Zephyr can also be used for military purposes and the second of two flights was completed for the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
The company is pitching it for use in disaster zones and other areas where real-time information is needed.
Airbus has already run its first test flights in civilian airspace, clocking up a total of 36 days in the air across only two flights.