Zephyr ultra-endurance air vehicle developer AALTO has secured a $100 million investment from a Japanese consortium including mobile services provider NTT DOCOMO.

Signed on 3 June, the agreement with Airbus-owned AALTO also involves Space Compass, Mizuho Bank and the Development Bank of Japan.

Described by its developer as a High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS), the solar-powered Zephyr is being offered for tasks including direct-to-device mobile connectivity and earth observation. With a 25m (82ft) wingspan, the lightweight aircraft can sustain round-the-clock operations at altitudes up to 75,000ft, with a flight endurance of more than two months already having been demonstrated.

Zephyr after launch

Source: AALTO

Solar-powered aircraft can support tasks including mobile connectivity and earth observation

“This investment marks the beginning of a strategic alliance to commercialise connectivity and earth observation services using HAPS in Japan and across Asia,” the UK-based company says. “It will also support the industrial and commercial roadmap for AALTO’s services, targeting launch in Japan and a global entry-into-service in 2026.”

“NTT DOCOMO continues to improve network quality and has been focused on establishing new technology frontiers that enhance access to connectivity services,” says chief technology officer Takaaki Sato. The provider currently has more than 89 million subscriptions for its network services.

“This technology brings together unique cutting-edge engineering with economics that are aligned to expand coverage to rural and remote areas, and support our collective response to natural disasters,” he adds.

“Japan has many remote islands and mountainous areas, where there are uneconomic connectivity solutions,” notes Space Compass co-chief executive Shigehiro Hori. “Our strategic relationship with AALTO, underpinned by technological innovation and the opportunity of the connectivity market, will help us build a new telecommunications infrastructure in these areas.”

AALTO and its Japanese backers began discussions in 2022 around potential collaboration, they reveal. The new financial support will be provided via the consortium’s HAPS Japan investment vehicle, “subject to closing conditions and regulatory approvals”.

“With world leaders in aviation and connectivity as shareholders, AALTO now has the combination of technological expertise and global reach to capitalise on the growth opportunities in substantial total addressable markets,” says AALTO chief executive Samer Halawi.

“This investment comes as AALTO moves into its next phase of development,” he adds. “This includes launching several customer missions over the coming year, establishing launch and landing sites for Zephyr, and advancing our certification process.”

“Airbus Defence & Space will remain AALTO’s majority shareholder,” the company notes.