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Google’s Solar-Powered UAV Crashed Due to a Wing Malfunction

It’s an age-old question: If one of Google’s solar-powered unmanned planes crashes in the desert, and nobody’s around to record it and put it up on YouTube, does it warrant an investigation? Turns out, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the answer is yes.

Research conducted in 2014 by a collaboration between Facebook and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that there are still roughly 4.4 billion people on Earth who don’t have internet access, and the social-networking giant—and of course, Google—see this as an opportunity to expand connectivity, as well as their business prospects. But actually getting people online, especially in remote areas, isn’t a simple task, and innovative methods are now required for delivering web to the web-less. This is where Titan Aerospace (purchased by Google in 2015) and its “Solara 50” solar-powered UAV (outlined in the above video) enter the picture.

The Solara 50, which is just one of many different aerial attempts recently made by Google to populate the skies with internet-beaming UAV’s (others include the “Loon” balloon), is designed to “fly above the weather” for five years at a time, all the while beaming down internet access to those on the ground. Unfortunately, when the 160-foot-wingspan plane had its proof-of-concept test flight back in May of 2015, the exercise ended with a crash landing, as well as total destruction of the aircraft. Now, thanks to an investigation conducted by the NTSB, the cause of the crash has been determined, and it turns out a blast of warm air and a faulty left wing were the culprits of the failed test flight. From the NTSB report:

“The operator indicated that the [Solara 50] encountered significant thermal air mass activity and began to both climb and exceed its design airspeed for an extended period of time. Visible deformation of the wing structure was witnessed by ground personnel during the overspeed condition. It achieved a maximum altitude of approximately 520 feet AGL just prior to structural failure of the left outboard wing. These thermal events were not immediately evident to the pilot due to latency of the aircraft instruments. It is believed the subsequent wing deformation caused the aircraft to begin an uncontrollable right hand turn that the pilot was unable to arrest.”

Ultimately, this is just another small hiccup in technological progress, and thankfully, nobody was hurt. This failure may slow Google’s efforts to dominate the skies with their internet-beaming UAV’s however, which could be a problem considering Facebook is hot on its heels, developing its own Solara 50-type aircraft called the “Aquila.” But technological competition seems to benefit us all (for the most part, at least in terms of cost and usability), and we can only imagine what new splendors may come to the fore, once 4.4 billion more people are able to log on to the internet, and share their cat videos.

What do you think about Google’s attempts to populate the skies with solar-powered internet-beaming UAV’s? Let us know in the comments section below!

HT: Engadget

Image: Google / Titan Aerospace

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