The Alauda Airspeeder Mk II racing drone prototype that crashed during a 2019 demonstration at the Goodwood Festival of Speed made an uncommanded climb to around 8,000 feet — into airspace used for arriving flights at Gatwick Airport — before its battery depleted and it plummeted into a field just 40 meters (130 feet) from occupied houses.
That’s according to a new, damning report from the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which determined that the loss of control one minute after take-off was caused by a loss of link between the ground and airborne control systems, likely due to either radio frequency (RF) interference or a failure of the onboard control system. The 95-kilogram (210-pound) unmanned aircraft climbed out of control for four-and-a-half minutes, drifting with a light wind, until it began to descend, flipped inverted, and impacted the ground with a descent rate of 4,500 feet per minute (82 kilometers per hour).
The report raises serious concerns about the manufacturer of the aircraft, Alauda Racing, and its associated company, Airspeeder, which aims to launch “the world’s first racing series for manned flying electric cars.” According to investigators, the Airspeeder Mk II relied on “hobbyist” components and crude assembly techniques, and was not designed, built, or tested to any recognizable standards. Indeed, “statements made by the operator and the findings of this investigation showed that they did not appear to have any knowledge or understanding of airworthiness standards,” the report states.
The AAIB also contends that the Operating Safety Case submitted by the operator to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in advance of the demonstration contained “a number of inconsistencies, misrepresentations, and omissions.” The CAA personnel assigned to evaluate the submission “were relatively new to the role and had limited experience in dealing with airworthiness matters,” and did not independently corroborate its claims. Neither did they meet the operator or inspect the aircraft before the accident flight.
The demonstration on July 4, 2019, was intended to build hype for Airspeeder’s eVTOL racing ambitions and was conducted before an audience of journalists. The AAIB report generally corroborates their first-person accounts of the event, which described the aircraft as “quickly rising high up into the sky, much to the Alauda team’s dismay” before it “came crashing back to Earth.” That contradicts an official statement issued at the time by Goodwood Aerodrome, which claimed that “the drone executed a programmed direct descent and landing after a successful demonstration.”
Investigators found that the Alauda team had experienced a hard landing with a different prototype during a test flight the day before but failed to report that event to authorities as they were required to do. The electronic control box was removed from the first aircraft and fitted to the aircraft involved in the accident on July 4, and “the re-use of safety-critical components from this incident may have been contributary to the subsequent loss of control,” the AAIB report states.
As a result of its investigation, the AAIB has issued 15 safety recommendations, most of those directed to the CAA concerning its requirements for the design and operations of unmanned aircraft. The AAIB is recommending that Alauda Racing amend its processes “to ensure that it designs, builds, and tests unmanned and manned aircraft in accordance with appropriate standards to ensure the safety of those who may be affected by their operation,” although it also acknowledges that the operator has already made a number of changes as a result of the accident.
When contacted by eVTOL.com, an Airspeeder spokesperson described the accident as “a short loss of control caused by unforeseen external factors affecting our control systems” and involving “a very early UAV prototype.”
“Since the incident was concluded we have worked with regulators and the appropriate bodies to provide all required information. Recommendations made since have been addressed and the company has since moved through three successful development phases,” the spokesperson added.
“We have just announced the conclusion of the Mk3 development program meaning the company is ready to demonstrate safe and compliant remote-piloted racing events in 2021.”