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US Army drone crashes hours ahead of breaking flight duration record
Airbus's solar-powered Zephyr nosedives after more than 64 days aloft
An unmanned, solar-powered drone was hours from breaking the world record for the longest-duration flight before it suddenly crashed.
Armed with solar panels, weighing less than 75 kilograms and with a wingspan of 25 meters, the Zephyr 8 model, developed by Airbus, is designed to fly for long periods of time with no crew. A test flight conducted by the US Army lasted 64 days and would have toppled the current world record for the longest flight if it stayed airborne for just another day.
The Zephyr smashed the previous record for drone flight duration in July, which had been set in 2018 at a little under 26 days, as well as setting an altitude record for unmanned platforms of 76,100 feet. It was chasing the 1959 duration record, set by Robert Timm and John Cook, who flew a Cessna 172 non-stop for 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes by refueling the aircraft from a moving truck, a trip that covered about 150,000 miles.
The drone went down on August 19, after ground controllers lost contact with the aircraft over Arizona. It had been flying over the southwestern United States at over 60,000 feet. Moments before it crashed into the desert it had just performed an S-shape maneuver at over 50 knots before it plummeted out of the sky, falling at 4,544 feet per minute, according to Simple Flying, an aviation news site.
"Following 64 days of stratospheric flight and the completion of numerous mission objectives, Zephyr experienced circumstances that ended its current flight campaign. No personal injury occurred," a representative from the US Army Future Command's Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing/Space Cross-Functional Team told military publication Task and Purpose.
"Our teams are currently analyzing more than 1500 hours of stratospheric mission data. The valuable experience from this prototype's ultra long-endurance flight has proved to be a positive step toward the Army's high-altitude platform goals. Once aircraft recovery and data analysis occur, more information will be available."
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The US and UK military have purchased Zephyrs, which act as High Altitude Platforms (HAPS) capable of capturing imagery and videos for surveillance purposes. The drone may provide an alternative to satellites; it supports payloads across various frequencies from radar, infrared, to optical and lidar for various applications, and can also carry radar and signal jammers.
The Register has asked Airbus for comment. ®