Test flight of Facebook’s internet drone was a success

By : |July 22, 2016 0

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want anyone outside his Facebook’s network. For him, this free for all networking platform should be all inclusive and Aquila is part of this philosophy. On June 28th, the company conducted the first successful test flight of its 140-feet wide unmanned Aquila drone over Yuma, Arizona.

Named after an eagle that carried Zeus’s thunderbolts in Greek mythology, Aquila is the flying drone Zuckerberg and company are designing to provide Internet access to remote parts of the world. It’s made of carbon fiber, and it tops the wingspan of a 737. This boomerang-shaped aircraft is designed to beam connectivity directly to people on the ground using laser communications and millimeter wave systems, a technology it is concurrently developing.

CIOL Facebook’s First Test Flight of Its Internet Drone was a Success

Eventually, Facebook hopes entire fleets of the carbon-fiber drones will fly for up to 90-days at a time in the stratosphere, between 60,000 and 90,000 feet. (The test flight only went up to 2,150 feet above sea level.) The drones will be solar powered and use lasers to deliver internet connections receivers on the ground, up to 30 miles in any direction. The connections will be fast, with speeds up to tens of thousands of gigabytes per second.

Facebook has flown many smaller prototypes of Aquila in the past year but this time, the Connectivity team put the first full-scale drone—using batteries but no solar power—into the air, testing out “autopilot, motors, batteries, radios, ground station, displays, basic aerodynamic handling, structural viability, and crew training,” wrote Martin Gomez and Andy Cox in a blog post, at an altitude of 2,150 feet. The drone flew at just 25 miles an hour, consuming less than 2,000 watts of power.

The flight “was our first ‘functional check,’ designed to verify our operational models and overall aircraft design,” wrote Facebook head of engineering and infrastructure, Jay Parikh wrote. “To prove out the full capacity of the design, we will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years. Failures are expected and sometimes even planned; we learn more when we push the plane to the brink.”

Parikh also acknowledged that there is much work ahead. In order to achieve the goal of keeping Aquila drones in the air for three months at a time, Facebook will have to break the current world record for unmanned solar-powered flight, which stands at two weeks.

Aquila has many challenges before it including how to get enough sun to charge its batteries, especially during winter months, as well as develop batteries that can provide the necessary power during dark hours.

Facebook will also need to ensure that its wireless technology and the aircraft itself comply with federal regulations. The FAA has begun to fine companies that fly commercial drones without special exemptions.

In the coming months, the Connectivity Lab team will study data from the Aquila test flight, add more drones to the fleet, fly at higher altitudes, and push the aircraft to their speed-strength limits. They’ll also test what they call the “low-speed loiter regime, where the aircraft will eventually provide connectivity to the ground.”

Finally, they will evaluate alternate form factors, sizes, and weights in order to maximize aerodynamic efficiency.

“We believe this work has never been more important,” Parikh said in his post. “New technologies like Aquila have the potential to bring access, voice, and an opportunity to billions of people around the world, and do so faster and more cost-effectively than has ever been possible before.”

Facebook is not the only company racing to tap this market. Google is working on its own connectivity solutions, like its giant Project Loon.

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