Zephyr: Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No, it’s a Telecomms Mast! - Pager Power
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Zephyr: Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No, it’s a Telecomms Mast!

Zephyr: Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No, it’s a Telecomms Mast!
June 10, 2024 Phillip Charhill

Developments of both wind turbines and other tall structures have the potential to interfere with communication infrastructure, this can constrain these projects, but could this concern one day be a thing of the past?

Tall developments can obstruct signals between a transmitter and receiver when these physical obstructions are located in the pathway of the signal (known as a link). This occurs as these signals travel horizontally across the landscape, such as across rural terrain, and can encounter obstructions, including wind farms, that interfere with the signal. Whether this interference is likely to occur for a development, an assessment – of which Pager Power is an experienced provider – is required. A solution to this constraint is to direct signals vertically into the atmosphere instead of horizontally.

Introducing Zephyr

Zephyr is an aircraft, developed by Airbus [1], which can fly in the stratosphere of earth and could one day carry the equipment required to manage telecommunications signals. What makes Zephyr unique is that it is unmanned, solar powered, and can (theoretically) stay airborne indefinitely [2].

Upon the wings of the craft are solar panels that collect the sun’s energy which powers propellers to carry Zephyr upwards during the day. At night the craft glides and slowly loses altitude once the batteries drain, until the morning sun recharges them. Such little energy is required as the stratosphere is a calm layer of air with little wind. The word “Zephyr” can be defined as a lightweight article or a gentle breeze, this particular Zephyr is in fact both, living in an area of low wind, and weighing less than the author of this piece. 

Due to its use of solar energy, Zephyr could remain airborne for months, or eventually even years at a time. A current constraint to the length of a flight is how many times the onboard batteries can be discharged and recharged before needing to be replaced – which requires landing. 

This remarkable little aircraft has the potential to replace telecommunication masts by acting as a relay to carry mobile phone signals in the same way a traditional cellular tower does today. By directing signals vertically into the air to a Zephyr, instead of horizontally across the land to another mast, obstructions that interfere with signals are far less significant. A transition from using masts to using aircraft could allow wind farms and other tall structures to exist without the side-effect of causing interference.


Figure 1: A wind turbine. [3]

Why Zephyr?

At this point you may be thinking, “why do we need planes with funny names when we have nearly ten thousand satellites in orbit of earth already, couldn’t they fulfil this function?” Satellites can indeed carry some phone signals; however this is often limited to simple functions like SMS services. More powerful satellites that can carry signals like 5G are much more expensive. 

As such, Zephyr – which could be outfitted to carry the technology to manage 5G and be brought down easily for upgrades and maintenance – can be a significantly cheaper option than satellite technology [4]. 

What about the telecommunication operators, how could they benefit from using a design like Zephyr? There are a multitude of potential gains: a single Zephyr could cover an area of seven and half thousand square kilometres, a much larger distance than a single tower can. Zephyr is also self-sufficient, using the sun’s energy to operate, which means lower running costs compared to a tower that consumes electricity and lower emissions. Launching a Zephyr could also be considerably cheaper and faster than the construction of a new mast.


Figure 2: Traditional telecommunication infrastructure. [5]

Don’t look a gift Zephyr in the mouth

What’s the draw back then? The current battery technology does need to be made more efficient before truly long-term flights can be archived. Further to this, a Zephyr must reach its cruising altitude by travelling through the lower (and more turbulent) stages of the atmosphere, which can be difficult to complete successfully. 

But as more durable batteries are designed, and better locations for launches are identified, our phones, televisions, and other communications could one day be networked through aircraft in the sky, instead of via steel masts on hill tops. For developers of tall infrastructure projects, this means one less constraint on their projects, freeing up more land for construction and allowing taller wind turbines to be built, moving us toward more green energy production.


[1] Airbus (2024) Zephyr, The world’s most advanced solar-powered High Altitude Platform Station. Available at: https://www.airbus.com/en/products-services/defence/uas/uas-solutions/zephyr Accessed: 9 June 2024. 

[2] BBC News (02 June 2024) The solar-powered aircraft flying high in the atmosphere. Accessed: 9 June 2024. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7WqP_MYLkM

[3] Grey metal wind turbine (January 2016) from Pexels, Accessed: 9 June 2024. Available at: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-metal-wind-turbine-33062/

[4] Wade, A. (05 Feb 2024) Zephyr high-altitude solar powered aircraft gears up for commercial service Published online at TheEngineer.co.uk. Available at: https://www.theengineer.co.uk/content/in-depth/zephyr-high-altitude-solar-powered-aircraft-gears-up-for-commercial-service/ (Accessed: 9 June 2024) 

[5] Silhouette of transmission tower on hill (June 2019) From Pexels, Accessed: 9 June 2024. Available at:  https://www.pexels.com/photo/silhouette-photo-of-transmission-tower-on-hill-2525871/


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