A prototype of the massive solar-powered drone Google Inc. plans to build as a platform for delivering Internet service from the sky was destroyed in a crash at a New Mexico test site.
The unmanned Solara 50 fell to the ground shortly after takeoff on May 1 and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, Keith Holloway, an agency spokesman, said in an interview. The accident occurred at a private airstrip east of Albuquerque and no one was injured, he said.
The crash is a setback for Google’s high-altitude vision of how to bring Internet access to areas of the world without sufficient infrastructure on the ground. Google last year bought Titan Aerospace Corp., which is building the unmanned aircraft, for an undisclosed sum.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, didn’t immediately respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment.
The company is in a race with Facebook Inc., which also attempted to buy Titan, a company headed by former Microsoft Corp. executive Vern Raburn. Facebook instead bought U.K.-based Ascenta, which is designing its own high-altitude drones, for $20 million.
The acquisitions are part of a broader strategy by the two Internet companies of pushing technology in areas such as robotics and mobile phones in hopes of pioneering new markets.
Google’s Solara 50 has a wingspan of 50 meters (164 feet) and the upper surface of its wing is covered in solar cells to generate power, according to company data. It’s designed with batteries that store electricity so it can continue flying at night and stay aloft for five years.
The plane would fly at high altitudes above the weather, where it could beam Internet signals to earth as if it was a satellite.
While the crash wasn’t a threat to people on the ground, U.S. regulations require the NTSB to investigate accidents of drones weighing more than 300 pounds, Holloway said. The agency hasn’t set a date for when it will release a more detailed report on the accident and its cause, he said.
The NTSB hasn’t yet posted a preliminary report about the incident on its website listing aviation accidents under investigation.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates aviation and had registered Google’s aircraft, is also monitoring the investigation, according to an agency statement.
–With assistance from Brian Womack in San Francisco.
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