Start-up aims for record-breaking 30 day flight with solar powered balloon

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A concept image of the Zephyr Exalto balloon in flight (Credit: Zephyr Exalto)
A concept image of the Zephyr Exalto balloon in flight (Credit: Zephyr Exalto)

Four years ago, Vincent Farret d’Asties had a dream.

Working as an air traffic controller, he imagined a new, more peaceful and efficient mode of flight, unconstrained by expensive, environmentally-damaging fuel and time limits. Now, his company Zephyr Exalto is planning to realise that dream using nothing more than helium and the Sun; and in the process, break the world record for the longest fuel-free manned flight in the atmosphere.

The French start-up is exhibiting at the Paris Air Show after designing its new stratospheric balloon. The vessel will not use propane to create hot air, but will instead float upwards with helium and use power from the Sun to ascend and descend. The patented technique is still closely guarded, but in March the company joined the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre, dedicated to innovative new ideas.

Zephyr Exalto plans for its balloon to reach 25km above the Earth, providing scientific companies with high-up atmospheric observations. Before the balloon is commercialised – and after planned testing in September – the company hopes to break a world record next year by flying for 30 days and nights without landing.

The idea comes directly from CEO d’Asties’ vision, and he plans to travel on the potentially record-breaking flight with pilot Amaury Jaorousse. He hopes the balloon will successfully complete his dream of limitless, fuel-free flight. “You can just drift along, spirited by the wind,” he tells Professional Engineering. “Something that is not like a machine, but works in a very efficient way.”

The balloon’s route will leave Europe, fly north over the Arctic and reach America before returning over the Atlantic. Its maximum altitude on the flight will be 9km.

The biggest challenge for balloon flights has always been successfully harnessing the wind, says d’Asties, making forecasts the most important technical aspect of the mission. “The best way to stay in the air for a long time is to know your environment, rather than using power and aggression over it,” he says. “There have been big improvements in the technology. New carbon can make the basket lighter, but the forecasting is the most important.”

If testing and the record-attempt go successfully, Zephyr Exalto aims to make the balloon commercially available for scientific projects. The company also intends to share as much of the flight as possible. “We will be lucky enough to share wonderful things with the world, and share the dream with schools, pupils and people – make them fly with us.”

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