back to article Second MoD Airbus Zephyr spy drone crashes on Aussie test flight

A second Airbus Zephyr high altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) drone, built for the UK's Ministry of Defence, has crashed in Australia while on a test flight. The 25m-wingspan aircraft reportedly crashed after encountering turbulence, according to a local news story. It was being flown from Wyndham, a remote airstrip in a …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "propulsion is provided by a 300W electric motor driving wing-mounted propellers."

    I *think* it's actually got two motors, one per propeller. I've got no idea what the wattage per propeller is though.

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      I was questioning that as well - I couldn't imagine a drive train of any sort being remotely energy, or weight, efficient.

      1. NoneSuch Silver badge

        Man 1: "We had to make the frame ultra-light, so it doesn't handle turbulence well, might crash."

        Man 2: "But it's weather-tight otherwise?"

        Man 1: "Of course. However, rain tends to weigh it down and performance decreases, might crash."

        Man 2: "Can't get it wet and keep it out of the wind. Can't imagine that will be a problem. So what's the cost?"

        Man 1: "4.1 million Pounds each, might crash."

        Man 2: "We're paying for this out of an MoD account, so we'll take fifty."

        Man 1: "Excellent. That will give you superb coverage of all of Afghanistan."

        Man 2: "Oh no. These are for post-BREXIT border enforcement in Northern Ireland.

        1. Chris the bean counter

          Northern Ireland

          I know it was a joke but not too daft an idea. Would be able to identify who was doing punishment beatings, planting bombs, smuggling warehouses and organising riots in Derry

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Northern Ireland

            It's Boris.

        2. hittitezombie

          Unless it carries radar to see through the clouds it'd be useless in NI.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      According to Wikipedia...

      Powerplant: 2 × Newcastle University custom permanent-magnet synchronous motor , 0.60 hp (0.45 kW) each

      1. Zolko Silver badge


        synchronous motors are for AC current (the rotating shaft is synchronised with the alternating phases, thus the name), and solar panels give DC current, so I think that's wrong. But 2 engines of 0.45kW (450W) sound more realistic than a 300W motor.

        Getting closer. I bet they are 3-phase brushless outrunners

        1. TWB

          Re: brushless

          I remember overhearing many years ago from my electrical tutor at university, that synchronous motors are the most efficient. DC to AC conversion is very good these days. Maybe the efficiency of a synchronous motor with a DC to AC converter just wins the maths....?

          (though I would also imagine that one speed props have their limitations unless they are variable pitch)

          1. Hurn

            Re: brushless

            Old style synchronous motors used brushes to supply the rotor windings with current - the rotor's magnetic field would sync up with the stator windings' rotating magnetic field (typically 3 phase induction motor style windings). If the rotor's magnetic field became too low, or the load on the shaft too high, synchronous motors can "slip a pole" which results in a current spike, which can trip the motor offline.

            Brushless / permanent magnets are ably to supply a constant rotor magnetic field without slip rings (which is good, as slip rings require brushes and maintenance). Hopefully, the magnets are strong enough to not slip a pole.

            Most likely, speed is controlled by changing the frequency of the incoming 3 phase AC - something like 20 Hz to 200 Hz - which would be handled by the static inverter. Chances are, each motor would have it's own static inverter aka speed controller.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: brushless

          Synchronous motors can be driven from a DC supply by using an inverter.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      From the picture, it looks as though there could be motors in the nacelles behind each prop. If you had a single motor and two drive trains you wouldn't need those nacelles as the motor would have to be centrally mounted because of its weight.

  2. Blockchain commentard
    Paris Hilton

    Should use a balloon to lift it high, then release it. Now where did I see a cerftain tech site do this before?

    1. Peter X

      Also maybe a small parachute whilst testing to deploy in the event of control loss... at least they might be able to salvage and reuse some parts that way.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        You're new to defense procurement !

        It would have an explosive charge which would ensure that all the ground support equipement was also destroyed

        1. Swiss Anton

          And a parachute would probably be too heavy, making the whole concept a non-starter

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Although it probably has a single .22 bullet onboard, because that makes it a fighter - which allows you to get funding from the RAF.

        2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          It would have an explosive charge

          Which, coinidentally, is mounted in a quick-release external harness that can be released by the operator.

          What in the old days, we used to call 'a bomb'..

    2. quxinot

      Nah. They simply forgot to flip it upside-down before launch. Gotta remember localization settings for the launch, after all!

    3. spold Silver badge

      ...just use a balloon/small airship and be done with it. OK it could drop the drone on something it seems to fall out of the sky pretty well.

  3. sbt

    First SkyLab...

    ... now this.

    Still, there's a whole lotta nothing to crash on.

  4. John Sager

    If it's that sensitive to turbulence then it's going to restrict its operational capabilities somewhat. At operating altitude there won't be much unless it hits a jetstream, but it's got to get up there first.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Do I get the impression that these things are only designed for use in the Middle East?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        We are now choosing our enemies based on how the photography will work out.

        Although it does mean California is more likely to be attacked by the USA than Scotland

        Wales was always safe because nobody can pronounce the targets

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Is a close flyby all that is needed to bring it down?

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        I'd go with 100% yes and frankly even if you hit it with a modern jet it would cause less damage than a bird strike.

        The flightglobal site says it can travel around 1000km per day, that gives it a cruise speed about 40km/h, at its operating height I'd think anything more than slight buffeting will cause it to drop out of the sky as it overstresses the frame.

        Looking at the pictures it seems clingfilm is being used as the aerodynamic surface covering. If you tried to make anything substantially more robust than this you'd soon be looking at a design not unlike a U2.

        From the military PoV, $4.1m for a 100 days of use makes these throw-away technology.

  5. lowwall

    "It was being flown from Wyndham"

    Should have launched from Claravale instead. It's only 600km away.

    P.S. I looked at a map of the area to see if there was a Calmford or such nearby. What I found is there is only nothing nearby.

  6. Mark 85

    Hmm... turbulence. I guess they've not heard of it? Reminds of a not-so-old movie where they can't fly the plane in an airshow because the crew washed it and it couldn't fly till it dried. As I recall, the designers got ripped because "never heard of rain?".

  7. Agent Tick

    This Wingspan ....

    ... is obviously unsuitable for air turbulences which are very common in Australia everywhere.

    1. Chris 239

      Re: This Wingspan ....

      Yeah, it's the diet down there .. lots of beans...

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    northern Australia's predictable climate

    'hot, dry, sunny, generally calm winds' - yeah right don't come here in the wet season.

    'Build up' has started expecting the first vicious thunderstorm soon...

    1. yorksranter

      Re: northern Australia's predictable climate

      I have no idea why they think the Kimberley has nice weather all year round.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The whole point to test flights is to see what kind of problems you might run into so that you can improve the design.

    I'd say that this test was successful in that respect.

  10. Aussie Doc
    Black Helicopters


    "...The aircraft are assembled at Farnborough in Hampshire..."

    And disassembled in Australia.

    Still, knowing how various boffins work they would have still got some useful data collected to help with improving design or whatnot.

    Chopper, coz, well, you know.

  11. naive

    A drone for the price of a business Jet ?

    $ 4,000,000,- buys one a light Cessna business jet with two jet engines.

    Airbus must make a ton of money charging this for a dumb electric drone.

    1. devTrail

      Re: A drone for the price of a business Jet ?

      Nah. They overpaid the project when they bought it from Qinetiq, but that's what you can expect from a company that when it was privatised became a gift to the backers of the Bush family.

  12. devTrail

    Hardware of software failure?

    Unfortunately for Airbus, the £4.3m Zephyr surveillance drone encountered "clear turbulence" while climbing away from the airstrip which caused it to tumble out of control

    Does it mean that the software was not able to control the movement of the plane in the turbulence? I wouldn't be surprised, flying a glider is a lot more difficult than a normal plane. However there might be some missing, not so small, details in the article. It would be interesting to know whether at least the structure is strong enough to sustain some turbulences or it is fragile as an old zeppelin.

  13. Winkypop Silver badge


    High altitude drop bears.

  14. JJKing

    Needs to be renamed.

    With the brilliant failure rate of two out of two crashed, I think it should be called MissHAPS.

  15. PeterM42

    From a quick look......

    .....if that is a genuine photo, that design is inherently prone to instability in anything other than VERY still air. ie: don't break wind while it takes off.

  16. hittitezombie

    No SAM batteries required

    So, all the enemy has to do is fly past it rather quickly. That's some useful vehicle.

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