A bunch of Aeronautics and Astronautics students from Stanford has broken the altitude record with a self-piloted plane. Last September 11, at Edwards Airbase, the group made four attempts with a pair of one-pound balsa-and-foam battery-powered propeller aircraft they designed and built themselves. Although they crashed and burned on two occasions, their second flight reached the impressive height of 7,142 feet — not that the ground crew were impressed, as they thought that their $500 model planes could do better.
Their first throw, using a plane named Cero Suave, crashed and burned after a few seconds, due to a communication error. Second up was Blue Panther (no relation to this little beauty) whose textbook takeoff broke the altitude record before losing contact with Ground Control on the edge of the airbase. Thanks to a smooth landing in automatic mode, Blue Panther made it back down to earth safely — until its third flight of the day, during which it reached the heady heights of 8,169 feet, but was forced to crash land after it flew out of the airspace allocated it by NASA.
"The students got to do a fast-paced project in which they went from a blank sheet of paper to testing out what their objective was and then achieving it," claimed one of the class teaching assistants. "The goal was to set a new altitude record and they did." The project is likely to be of interest to both companies and government agencies, who realise that a bunch of sub-$1,000 planes fitted with cameras or environmental sensors, is a more interesting prospect than a handful of large, rather costly drones.