A new breed of aircraft that flies in the stratosphere just completed a set of tests in the Arizona desert, breaking new records and worrying privacy advocates about what the aircraft may hold for the future.
“There is rapid technological progress on a lot of different fronts that has implications for privacy and surveillance and this is one of them,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union said to Arizona Mirror of the recent test flights of the Airbus Zephyr 8.
The Zephyr 8 is a solar powered aircraft that is known as a high altitude pseudo satellite or HAPS for short. These aircraft are designed to stay aloft for weeks or months at a time in the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere where ozone is abundant.
The Zephyr 8 recently finished a series of flights in which it flew out of the Yuma Proving Grounds and stayed aloft for long durations of time, sometimes as long as 18 days, carrying an Optical Advanced Earth Observation system for Zephyr, or OPAZ for short.
The OPAZ, according to literature provided by Airbus, allows for “enhanced high resolution pictures or stream live video with active stabilization and an excellent agility to rapidly select the field of view.”
“Just because we are so high up does not mean we do not have the ability to perform high resolution reconnaissance and surveillance and other tasks,” Paul Stevens, then head of design for the Zephyr project said in a 2019 talk posted to YouTube that showed footage captured from OPAZ during a test flight.
Stevens now appears to work for another company based in the UK that works on similar projects but in his 2019 talk he discussed how Zephyr could be used by a variety of industries from military to commercial industry.
The aircraft has been marketed as a means for patrolling borders, maritime surveillance, monitoring natural disasters, oil spills and civil planning. In the past, Airbus marketed a version of the aircraft that included an EO/IR system used to track illegal border crossers.
The most recent test had the aircraft entering new territory in Arizona, with it crossing into commercial airspace and out of the restricted airspace it had been confined to for the first time.
A spokesperson for Airbus declined to comment on the exact areas where the Zephyr flew, only saying it flew “east” of the Yuma Proving Grounds. However, historical flight data shows that the Zephyr appears to have flown east over the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and even as far as Gila Bend on Sept. 2.
The crew controlling the Zephyr also appears to have had fun with the aircraft itself, using it for skywriting. The Mirror discovered a TikTok account of what appears to be one of the crew members who used the aircraft to write a message for a loved one whose wedding he could not attend.
“You may have become aware of a new phenomenon called stratospheric art,” Stevens said during his talk referring to the skywriting. Other crews have done it before and it was done during these tests as well. “A very bored crew, to pass the time, were sending love messages home in the stratosphere.”
Airbus said the “electro-optical” still images they collected during the 36 days the aircraft was in the stratosphere over Arizona are being used for “internal testing of resolution,” when the Mirror inquired about how any data collected during the tests would be used.
Although the tests took place on Army property, Airbus would not fully state whether or not the U.S. Army was part of the tests. However, the Yuma Proving Grounds have long been used by private industry for testing.
“Although we cannot comment on contracts we have supporting USG customers, we can say that Airbus has been actively engaged with the US DoD about Zephyr for some time now,” Morgan Keese, Director of Communications for Airbus Space and Defense told the Mirror. “Airbus U.S. and our customers see Zephyr as a key component to operationalizing the stratosphere.”
It is the “operationalizing” of the stratosphere that has people like Stanley from the ACLU worried.
“There are government restrictions that only apply to satellites that don’t apply to aircraft,” Stanley said, adding that HAPS currently operate in a “wild west” as they use technology that is consistent with satellite technology but at a much lower level.
Spy satellites operate at around 200 to 300 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, whereas HAPS generally operate at around 20 kilometers and stay in one place as opposed to satellites which orbit around the entire planet.
“The system is similar in function to Airbus space-based technologies,” Keese said when asked by the Mirror if Zephyr uses similar technology to their system of satellites. “Airbus continues to develop industry-leading space-based EO and SAR sensors. It’s in Airbus’ DNA to leverage successful technologies and experience from across all of our business lines to create and employ cutting-edge capabilities to most effectively serve our customers.”
For Stanley, his concern is that the accuracy of a spy satellite coupled with a closer proximity in an area of the Earth’s atmosphere that does not currently have much government oversight could lead to an encroachment on people’s privacy, be it by government agencies or corporations. .
“While there are a lot of good uses for these tools we need to get our ducks in a row to make sure our values are protected,” Stanley said. “Nobody wants to live under a microscope, whether it is Google, the Government or Airbus or any other company.”
Airbus isn’t the only company that is working on this technology either.
Boeing and smaller companies have already created their own HAPS and have begun testing and even selling them to customers. One company called HAPS Mobile is attempting to use them as mobile base stations to deliver cell service around the world, however, the company also plans to put cameras on its aircraft as well.
“We’re rapidly entering a new era of technology where people need to worry about it,” Stanley said.