Airbus has plenty of experience developing groundbreaking uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs)—the long-range, high-flying, record-setting Zephyr is perhaps the best example.
Now, Airbus U.S. Space and Defense is building on the success of Zephyr by launching a new, purpose-built business line dedicated to military UAVs, the company announced Thursday. The business doesn’t yet have a name. But its goal will be to effectively optimize, scale, and deploy uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
Led by retired U.S. Army aviator Brian Zarchin, vice president of UAS for Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, the new unit will bring together experienced industry drone operators, as well as a few who flew UAVs for the military. Leadership will also comprise former defense engineers, maintainers, and stratospheric aviation experts.
“Airbus U.S. Space and Defense is uniquely positioned and passionately driven to provide trusted and affordable stratospheric deep sensing and network extension capability to our Warfighters,” said Zarchin. “With ongoing great power competition, it’s critical that we do our part to help deter threats and, in crisis or conflict, present our adversaries with multiple dilemmas. Our new business line is laser-focused on helping the DOD solve its toughest UAS challenges, from surface to stratosphere.”
Zarchin and his team members will bring expertise in Army tactical UAS, payload integration engineering, and fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations within the Army’s Military Intelligence Corps. “High altitude experts” formerly with Google and the U.S. Air Force will also be on the roster.
According to its website, the department flies more than 11,000 different UAVs—ranging from hulking behemoths to insect-sized drones—primarily to support training, surveillance, and the testing of tactics and equipment. The DOD sends the occasional UAV shipment to Ukraine to combat Russian forces, and it’s aiding the Israel Defense Forces’ hostage recovery efforts in Gaza with unarmed MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drones.
Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks revealed the U.S. Replicator Initiative: Its goal is to “outmatch” the drone production of enemies (such as China and Russia) by producing UAVs that are “small, smart, cheap, and many.” Over the next two years, the U.S. will churn out several thousand systems. And Hicks noted that private sector UAS firms, which now include Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, will have a major role to play in the effort.
It’s unclear exactly what kind of UAVs Airbus’ latest vertical will develop. But the phrasing in last week’s announcement may provide some clues.
“Today’s threat landscape is dominated not only by manned aircraft and expensive defense systems but also by swarms of unmanned systems of varying shapes, sizes, autonomy and operational capabilities,” the announcement read. “The DOD has consequently shifted to new and additional ways to outpace the threat, including scaling uncrewed systems and platforms that can track, detect, and counter today’s threats, while posturing for further advances in this technology.”
The new UAS business builds on the success of Zephyr, a solar-powered, fixed-wing UAS that flies in the stratosphere. Zephyr has spent more than 100 days in that layer of the atmosphere, shattering several uncrewed altitude and endurance records in the process.
Many of those came during a 2022 flight spanning more than 30,000 nm—long enough to lap the Earth and then some. That trip lasted 64 days and allowed Zephyr to rack up 1,500 consecutive hours flying above 60,000 feet, doubling its own record for the longest UAV flight.
In fact, the aircraft came just a few hours shy of setting the record for the longest flight of any kind. Incredibly, that honor is held by a pair of pilots who flew a Cessna 172 Skyhawk for 64 days and 22 hours straight—all the way back in 1959.
“The future battlespace is here, and our team is ensuring the warfighter is equipped with technology that allows them to make informed decisions to counter the threat,” said Rob Geckle, chairman and CEO of Airbus U.S. Space and Defense. “And while the Zephyr stratospheric platform is our foundational UAS program, we envision multiple UAS solutions supporting a range of customer missions and operational needs.”
Beyond Zephyr, Airbus U.S. Space and Defense also produces the Eurodrone for European ISR missions, the Aliaca for deployment from Naval ships, and the uncrewed, multimission VSR700 helicopter. It also offers UAS services such as the DeckFinder local positioning system and manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T), a software that connects UAVs and allows them to serve as force multipliers for crewed aircraft.
If Thursday’s announcement is any indication, though, those aircraft are only the tip of the iceberg.
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