Airbus' Zephyr ultra-light solar electric drone crashed on August 19 after 64 days of continuous flight, according to the Simple Flying website, which specializes in aeronautical issues. Airbus has not yet confirmed the information.
Ground controllers reportedly lost contact with the experimental aircraft as it flew over the Arizona desert between Phoenix and Mexicali on the Mexican border.
Simple Flying reports that the Zephyr was at an altitude of 45,000 to 50,000 feet and had just completed an S-shape maneuver when it began to descend rapidly over 4,544 feet (1.38 km) by minute before hitting the ground.
The solar-powered unmanned aircraft had been in the air for several weeks. On July 15, it had already set a new flight record for a solar-electric drone by remaining in flight for more than 30 days, according to The Guinness Book of Records. He had taken off from a military base in Yuma, Arizona, on June 15. The Zephyr has achieved flights reaching 76,100 feet, another world record for an electric drone.
Spy plane and cell tower
The Zephyr has a wingspan of 25 meters (82 feet) and weighs less than 75 kilograms (165 pounds). It flies into the stratosphere at over 70,000 feet (21 km), nearly twice the altitude of an ordinary jet aircraft.
Flying high in the stratosphere, the drone remains above terrestrial weather disturbances. Its Mylar and carbon fiber wings are covered in solar panels that absorb light continuously throughout the day, providing enough energy to power its electric motor day or night.
The Zephyr is intended to accomplish at an affordable cost a wide range of civil and military missions accomplished by satellites: terrestrial and maritime surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, environmental monitoring and communications. This is why Airbus calls it a HAPS (High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellite).
At its highest altitude, a single Zephyr can provide the coverage equivalent of 250 cell towers and could be used to improve communications in the most remote areas of the world.
The longest flight in history
The Zephyr was hours away only to break the record for the longest flight in history, which dates back 63 years. From December 1958 to February 1959, Bob Timm and John Cook were in the air for 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes aboard a small Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
Aerial refueling was provided by a hose lowered from the aircraft to a truck traveling at the same speed on a straight road. Three minutes was enough, twice a day, to fill the tank. A cable similarly provided the crew with drinks, food and other supplies such as towels and water for shaving and washing.