A record breaking uncrewed solar aeroplane developed by NASA crashed into the Pacific during a test flight on Thursday. The Helios aircraft held the altitude record for a non-rocket-powered aircraft after ascending to 29,500 metres in August 2001.
The experimental remote-controlled plane crash-landed 29 minutes after taking off from a US air base on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. NASA has yet to determine the cause of the crash but has appointed accident investigators. This will include officials from AeroVironment, the California-based company that built Helios for NASA.
“We were flying at about the 8000-foot [2438 metres] altitude west of Kauai over the ocean and the aircraft simply broke up,” Alan Brown, a spokesman for NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, told Associated Press.
The accident comes in the same week that concerns were raised over the safety of uncrewed aircraft. New Scientist print edition reported that a consortium of aerospace companies is pushing for current restrictions on the access of uncrewed airplanes to commercial airspace to be relaxed. Air safety campaigners oppose the move. The consortium, known as Access Five, includes both NASA and AeroVironment.
During Thursday’s test flight Helios was testing an experimental fuel cell system in preparation for a long-duration flight planned for July.
Helios, which more resembles a giant curved wing than a conventional plane, was powered by 14 individual propeller engines. It was designed to fly for long periods, recharging on-board fuel cells using the solar panels stretching across its 130-metre wingspan.
The hope is that such aircraft could remain at high altitudes almost indefinitely, absorbing solar energy during the day and using the stored power at night. This could provide a cheaper alternative to telecommunication or Earth-observation satellites.