‘Pseudo-satellite’ plane finishes testing in Arizona desert, privacy advocates worry

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A new generation of planes flying in the stratosphere has just completed a series of tests in the Arizona desert, breaking new records and worrying privacy advocates about what the plane might contain for the to come up.

“There are rapid technological advancements on many different fronts that have implications for privacy and surveillance and this is one of them,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. Arizona mirror recent Airbus Zephyr 8 test flights.

The Zephyr 8 is a solar powered aircraft known as a pseudo high altitude satellite or HAPS for short. These planes are designed to stay aloft for weeks or months in the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere where ozone is abundant.

The Zephyr 8 recently completed a series of flights in which it took off from Yuma testing grounds and remained in the air for extended periods, sometimes up to 18 days, carrying an advanced observation optical system. de la Terre for Zephyr, or OPAZ for short.

OPAZ, according to documentation provided by Airbus, enables “enhanced high-resolution images or live video streaming with active stabilization and excellent agility to quickly select the field of view.”

“Just because we’re so high doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to perform high-resolution reconnaissance and surveillance and other tasks,” said Paul Stevens, then head of project design. Zephyr at a conference in 2019. posted on youtube which showed images captured by OPAZ during a test flight.

Stevens now appears to work for another UK based company that is working on similar projects but in his 2019 speech, he explained how Zephyr could be used by a variety of industries, from the military to commercial industry.

The aircraft was marketed as a means of border patrol, maritime surveillance, surveillance of natural disasters, oil spills and civil planning. In the past, Airbus marketed a version of the aircraft which included a EO / IR system used to track down illegal cross-border workers.

The most recent test allowed the aircraft to enter new territory in Arizona, enter commercial airspace, and exit the restricted airspace in which it was first confined.

An Airbus spokesperson declined to comment on the exact areas where the Zephyr flew, saying only that it was flying “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 September 2.

The crew controlling the Zephyr also appear to have had fun with the aircraft itself, using it to write the sky. The Mirror discovered a TikTok Account of what appears to be one of the crew who used the plane to write a message for a loved one whose wedding he was unable to attend.

“You may have become aware of a new phenomenon called stratospheric art,” Stevens said during his speech referring to the writing of the sky. Other crews have done it before and it was done during these tests too. “A very bored crew, to pass the time, was 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 resolution tests”, when the Mirror inquired about how the data collected during the tests would be used.

Although the tests took place on military property, Airbus did not say whether or not the US military was part of the tests. However, the Yuma Proving Grounds have long been used by private industry for testing.

“While we cannot comment on the contracts we have with USG customers, we can say that Airbus has been actively engaged with the US DoD on Zephyr for quite some time,” said Morgan Keese, director of communications. of Airbus Space and Defense. Mirror. Airbus US and our customers see Zephyr as a key part of operationalizing the stratosphere. ”

It is the “operationalization” of the stratosphere that worries people like Stanley of the ACLU.

“There are government restrictions that only apply to satellites that do not apply to airplanes,” Stanley said, adding that HAPS are currently operating in a “wild west” because they use technology consistent with the technology. satellite but at a much lower level.

Spy satellites operate around 200 to 300 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, while HAPS typically operate around 20 kilometers and stay in one place unlike satellites that orbit the entire planet.

“The system has a function similar to Airbus space technologies,” Keese said, interviewed by the Mirror if Zephyr uses similar technology to their satellite system. “Airbus continues to develop advanced spaceborne EO and SAR sensors. It is in Airbus DNA to leverage the successful technologies and experience of all of our business lines to create and utilize advanced capabilities to serve our customers as efficiently as possible.

For Stanley, his concern is that the accuracy of a spy satellite coupled with greater proximity to an area of ​​Earth’s atmosphere that is currently not heavily monitored by the government could lead to an invasion of people’s privacy. whether by government agencies or businesses. .

“While there are a lot of great uses for these tools, we need to line up our ducks to make sure our values ​​are protected,” Stanley said. “No one wants to live under a microscope, whether it’s Google, the government or Airbus or any other company.”

Airbus is not the only company working on this technology either.

Boeing and small enterprises have already created their own HAPS and have started testing them and even selling them to customers. A company called HAPS Mobile is trying to use them as mobile base stations to provide cellular service around the world. However, the company also plans to install cameras on its planes.

“We are quickly entering a new technological age where people have to care,” Stanley said.


Arizona mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of grant-supported news bureaus and a coalition of donors as a 501c (3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Jim Small with any questions: [email protected] Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.



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