back to article Airbus drone broke up in-flight because it couldn’t handle Australian weather

A drone that Airbus once flew for 25 days without landing and suggests as either an airborne communications platform, or a stratospheric spy, broke up after its automation failed in rougher-than-expected weather. So says the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which yesterday released its investigation into the September 2019 …

  1. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge

    Australia eats satellites

    Australia: 2 (Skylab was the first)

    Satellites: 0

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Australia eats satellites

      About time their luck changed.

      Emus: 1

      Australia: 0

  2. UCAP Silver badge

    Zephyr is fragile

    I've actually seen the Zephyr platforms, and they are incredibly fragile. A strong person could easily lift one up if they wanted to, but a weak person could, with the slight assistance of a length of 2-by-4, just as easily render one fit for nothing but a scrapyard. This is a common problem for all HAPS; I was once involved in flight trials on another platform that could not be launched on the expected day because it was far too windy - 5 mph being consider far to windy for that platform.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Zephyr is fragile

      fragile air frame, the down side of having to make it uber-lightweight for solar panels to power it.

      (back to the drawing board, or in their case, probably a cube farm of workstations running CAD software)

      I bet there were similar design problems with that human-powered aircraft from a while back. It took many tries before a "working" one could be built [and I think it actually flew on ground-effect]

      there are probably some interesting "exotic material" possibilities with making it even lighter weight than before, so that the rest of the airframe could be 'beefed up' a bit... hybrid materials involving carbon fiber, boron, aluminum, and so on. Maybe even use SMT tech inside the motor [example, a 'folded' inductor] and some kind of uber-light-weight electronic solder for the electronics (like maybe conductive glue?) Dunno if they're doing those things.

      yeah, a soldered circuit board weighs quite a bit more than one without any solder on it... especially when soldered by someone who thinks "the bigger the blob, the better the job"

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Zephyr is fragile

        bob, is that really you!? That post was reasonable. No shouty, shouty CAPS (apart from CAD) I'm stunned.

  3. David Pearce

    Air density

    At 70000 ft air density is about 1/20 ground level, at 7000 ft about 2/3

  4. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    ‘Zephyr’ is designed to either beam down data or spy for weeks, but lasted about 90 minutes

    So, much better than a 737 MAX then?

  5. raving angry loony

    There was a spider...

    ... so I had to smash it with this drone/satellite.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    First time I heard about HAP/HAPS/etc. ideas was something like mid 1990s. The concept failed after some considerable amounts of R&D funds were wasted - and after that the same idea have resurfaced 1-2 times before these latest developments.

    It seems like this is some kind of perpetual machine - all the lessons learned are forgotten in less than decade and someone (sufficiently influential) comes up with "new bright idea" and the cycle starts all over again.

    1. JetSetJim

      > It seems like this is some kind of perpetual machine

      Err, one that has an input voltage from the solar cells covering it to power control systems and some form of propulsion (2x props, from the looks of the pics) to take it from ground to 70,000 feet and assist in maintaining altitude.

      Perhaps it failed in the 90s, but materials science has no doubt come a long way in providing a lightweight airframe from which you can hang a payload of electrical gubbins

      1. teknopaul Silver badge

        I'm with OP, come a long way, but, not all the way. It failed in 2020. I'm sure they will try again in 2030.

        in the meantime, flimsy and unpredictable weather don't mix.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Plus the idea of a high altitude (for the time) spy device has been around since at least the American Civil War. Ultimately they're slow moving targets if used in a war zone, vulnerable to SAMs and many jet fighters.

          1. JetSetJim

            Do SAMs go up to 70k feet?

            1. Wellyboot Silver badge

              Ask Gary Powers

              1. David Hicklin Bronze badge

                But being unmanned are considered expendable

              2. JetSetJim

                Good point - the missile that shot him down (and a Russian MIG pilot) goes to 85000 feet

    2. Peter Prof Fox

      Why so negative?

      Technology changes as alternatives are proposed and tried in the real world. If YOU flap your arms and jump off a cliff then it's quite likely YOU won't learn but OTHERS will. The lessons they take away might differ. Sometimes it's a breakthrough application of new technology, others more experience, more understanding and improved tools.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I dunno, I had a car salesman recently tell me that the regen braking on the new electric Renault Zoe was, and I quote, "So good that if I took it for a short drive I'd end up with more battery charge than when I set off"...

      "So" I asked innocently, "if I split my long journey up into lots of short ones I wouldn't need to recharge?"

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        That salesman told the truth but forgot to tell you one restriction though: It only works if that short drive is downhill only.

        1. JetSetJim
    4. phuzz Silver badge

      Isn't that like saying that smartphones never became popular in the 90's and so people should have given up then and never revisited the idea?

      Some ideas become feasible, once technology has reached a point to support them.

      1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
        Big Brother

        Some people would say it was a shame they didn't give up.

  7. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse


    Perhaps to save time they just did a Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V from the Boeing software?

  8. Graham43723

    What does the ground speed have to do with anything in this case?

    1. PTW

      Came here to say exactly that! Where's Gaz?

      1. teknopaul Silver badge

        It tells you relative wind speed, one to one with what the thing is capable of.

    2. werdsmith Silver badge

      Indeed, in a strong headwind it is possible to fly some light aircraft backwards. I’m wondering about the effect of turning crosswind on the autonomous nav stem.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Love doing that

        A few years ago I had a microlight that was flyable at about 30 mph. Used to love taking it up high until I found a 30mph headwind and then just hover like an eagle! Damm - why did I ever sell it?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        done it

        long time ago, really far far away, I did a complete circuit without turning more than 30 degrees. Steady strong wind, increasing at height in a flat, flat wheat growing area above isolated airfield. It is weird "backing" an aircraft downwind but interesting easy challenge. No, no-one else up that day.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "wondering about the effect of turning crosswind"

        I hope you're not talking about the mythical "stall while turning downwind". Because as far as flight (and not navigation) is concerned, an airplane is completely oblivious to the direction and speed the surrounding air is moving relative to ground.

    3. Potemkine! Silver badge

      An uncle of mine flew with Ju52 after WW2. He told me the plane was so slow that it was flying backwards when heading a strong wind. He lost a race vs a car driven by a friend with that plane.

      1. Dabooka


        Is that the type used at the end of Where Eagles Dare?

        1. JetSetJim

          Re: juJ52

          yes. There's also a couple of YT vids of the ending knocking about that allow for a more direct comparison with the pic and it looks the same.

          Are those markings on the pic from the RAF?

      2. Denarius Silver badge

        also Feisler Storch

        AFAIRC when the 7/8 kit was first shown the pilot demoed its legendary slow speed STOL by flying backwards down runway in moderate wind. Might have been Oshkosh

  9. Potemkine! Silver badge

    There's no example of a plane which never lands.

    1. Lars Silver badge

      There's no example of a plane which never lands.

      True, it's all about the after landing life.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        As Rincewind says - he's not afraid of heights, he's afraid of grounds.

    2. JetSetJim

      This one didn't - it crashed (yeah, yeah, "crash-landing").

      Also, what about sea-planes? Do they "land"? Or should they "river/lake/sea/ocean"?

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Curiously, French makes the distinction between aterrisage (land/terre) and amerrissage (sea/mer).

        1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

          As one of my flying instructors told me "any landing you can walk away from is a good one."

          1. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge

            so no amerissage can be a good one since you wouldn't be able to walk by only swim?

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              "so no amerissage can be a good one since you wouldn't be able to walk by only swim?"

              There was this one guy... (and his mate)

              1. JetSetJim

                The pedant might speculate crashing in the surf on a beach where one might be able to walk away from it, even if slightly damp not just from fear)

                1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

                  Walking away ...

                  If you crash a powered aircraft you RUN from the wreck to avoid the fireball when the kerosene in the fuel tanks explodes. Or, you rescue other people on the plane and take the risk.

                  As for my instructor, it was last millennium, and I was learning to fly gliders in a place over 100 miles from the sea. In any case touching down on water one not expect to have to swim, but step into a boat or onto a wharf, though I acknowledge that Capt. 'Sully' did a pretty good one on the Hudson River a few years ago.

                  1. Denarius Silver badge

                    Re: Walking away ...

                    @EclecticMan. In Finland glider pilots are taught landing in lakes because it beats forests... Hair driers in fuselage and wings overnight and plane ready for next day, so I am told.

          2. The Basis of everything is...


            And that all landings are controlled crashes?

            1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

              Re: Riposte

              Only on carriers and even then only with fixed wing aircraft incapable of hovering.

            2. Denarius Silver badge

              Re: Riposte

              nope, just jets. Even new C17 hits ground, controlled or otherwise with full engine power due to drag of everything hanging out in breeze, plus lift dumpers extended

    3. Imhotep

      You're assuming all of the planes in the air at present are going to land. It just takes one to refute that assumption.

  10. Sceptic Tank Silver badge

    They were much better when Ford built them.

  11. securityfiend


    Every aircraft has a Va - max maneuvering speed. Above that speed, normal control inputs can result in structural damage. There is also Vne - never exceed where structural damage can occur without maneuvering.

    To keep the weight down for flying at low density altitudes, the drove would be quite fragile and turbulence could easily go above Va or Vne.

  12. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "the third upset resulted in the aircraft entering an uncontrolled spiral descent."

    The spin is as old as airplanes. Some are more susceptible than others, but an unrecoverable spin is always on the cards and the G forces can get high. As this would appear to be a somewhat lightly built airframe, the outcome is not entirely unexpected.

    1. Martin Gregorie

      Re: "the third upset resulted in the aircraft entering an uncontrolled spiral descent."

      Err, not quite correct. If G-forces increase until the airframe breaks up, the aircraft is in a spiral dive, not a spin. Spiral dives, if not corrected, always end up destroying the airframe, usually by disintegration as airspeed exceeds VNE (the maximum rated airspeed) or by impact with the ground.

      Spins are totally different to spiral dives: they are a more or less stable state, which is why they killed so many in the early days of flight: the pilot must take action to stop a spin, but in the early days: nobody knew how to do that. This is why spin recognition and recovery is, or should be, an essential part of pilot training.

      In a spin, one wing, the one the plane is turning towards, is fully stalled while the other wing is generating lift, so the descent is relatively slow. What happens if the spin as allowed to continue depends in the aircraft: a few will self recover (e.g. an SZD Junior glider with a light pilot), with some (a Puchacz aerobatic glider after 10-12 rotations) the rotation rate increases and the descent rate slows because both wings are now lifting (this is known as a flat spin) while other aircraft continue to spin at the same rate until they hit the ground.

      Because a spin is fairly stable, the pilot must take action stop the spin, and to do that one has to know how to stop a spin as well as to recognise spin entry and to take action while still high enough to avoid hitting the ground during recovery.

      Bottom line: the Zephyr broke up it the air, so it either hit turbulence strong enough to overstress it or got tipped into a spiral dive which its control systems failed to recover it from before it broke up.

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: "the third upset resulted in the aircraft entering an uncontrolled spiral descent."

        Stick forward, full opposite rudder until the spin becomes a dive, then centralise the controls.

        well, it works for a Slingsby T21. :o)

        1. Scene it all

          Re: "the third upset resulted in the aircraft entering an uncontrolled spiral descent."

          Yeah, every glider pilot knows that and is expected to demonstrate it during flight test. But do power pilots learn it? Anything as big and fragile as these drones needs to be flown more like a glider than a Cessna 150, even though most gliders are actually built quite strongly.

  13. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Are they not aware of winds and wind shear?

    These things are probably fine at 70,000 meters where the wind is generally pretty clean. Getting them up there involves lots of potential problems. I'd imagine once you can get one to fly on pv for several weeks then you can make loads and clutter up the skies losing a few on the way up and down because the wind will just tear something that fragile apart. Any experienced pilot will have a story of some kind involving clear air turbulence.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Are they not aware of winds and wind shear?

      Yes so you either build it twice as strong to handle more turbulence and reduce its payload and flight time. Or you make it light and assume you lose a few to bad weather. The nice thing about unmanned is you get to decide

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Are they not aware of winds and wind shear?

        > The nice thing about unmanned is you get to decide

        Except that there's still 100KG of drone potentially arriving unannounced on someone's head if it's not a controlled descent. Yeah, the GAFA* is pretty empty but this is just the testing phase - real deployment is going to be from places slightly more populous.

        [*] Great Australian Fuck All

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Are they not aware of winds and wind shear?

          "real deployment is going to be from places slightly more populous."

          With an "up to" 90 day flight time and being very, very delicate, most places you want them will not have suitable launch conditions frequently enough so you'll probably launch from somewhere likely to have nearly constant, or at least predictable, calm weather and then just fly to the required part of the world.

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Are they not aware of winds and wind shear?

          Most places that you want 90days of round the clock aerial surveillance you are are planning to drop shit on their heads anyway - this thing ain't to bring cat video to the kangarooa

  14. Smirnov

    Fun Fact: Zephyr was developed by QinetiQ not Airbus

    An interesting side note is that Zephyr wasn't developed by Airbus, it was developed by QinetiQ and later sold as the concept appeared to be a dead end.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Fun Fact: Zephyr was developed by QinetiQ not Airbus

      It was a dead end, nobody wanted to part with enough cash to keep the project going*.

      Also there must only be about 2 days a year when launching this from the UK is possible.

      *This is completely opposite to the normal UK flight development practise of going over budget, delivering late and then being cancelled just as soon as everything is made to work properly.

  15. DuncanL

    "post‑crash management procedures"

    aka "picking up the bits"....

    1. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge

      Re: "post‑crash management procedures"

      Remember that NASA was fined for littering when Skylab crashed and they didn't come to retrieve the bits...

  16. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Did it ...

    ... hit a building?

  17. EveryTime

    Uhmm, so any comment on the statement that "Everything in Australia wants to kill you"?

    1. Imhotep

      They continue to make a convincing case.

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