WASHINGTON – A prototype of a huge, solar-powered drone Google 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 National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, Keith Holloway, an agency spokesman, said in an interview. No one was injured, he said.
Titan is developing the aircraft at the Moriarty airport.
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.
“Although our prototype plane went down during a recent test, we remain optimistic about the potential of solar-powered planes to help deliver connectivity,” said Courtney Hohne, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google. “Part of building a new technology is overcoming hurdles along the way.”
Google is in a race with Facebook, which also attempted to buy Titan, a company headed by Vern Raburn, a former Microsoft executive and founder of Eclipse Aviation Corp.
Facebook bought Britain-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 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 the ground as if it were 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 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.