Facebook has a plan to create mobile internet hubs, bringing internet access to the rest of the world via solar-powered drones. Facebook recently took a big step forward towards making their plans a reality, conducting a successful test of its giant Aquila drone.
Facebook’s Aquila drone had a test flight last year, but unfortunately the drone crashed upon landing. The recent test was much better for the company, as the solar-powered drone, which as the wingspan of a Boeing 737, successfully flew at around 3,000 feet for one hour and 46 minutes.
“We successfully gathered a lot of data to help us optimize Aquila’s efficiency,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the flight. “When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world. Today, more than half the world’s population — 4 billion people — still can’t access the internet. One day, Aquila will help change that.”
Though Aquila can be manually controlled by a flight crew, it is designed to fly autonomously. Facebook is aiming for the drone to be able to maintain an altitude of 60,000 feet for months at a time.
“By design, Aquila does nothing fast: It climbs slowly, descends even slower, and when flying upwind moves only at 10-15 mph over the ground. We designed Aquila this way because it is meant to stay in the same area for long periods of time to supply internet access. Aquila is solar-powered and extremely power-efficient — running on the power equivalent of three blow dryers,” said Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms, Martin Luis Gomez.
Facebook has made a number of changes to the drone since it crashed during the first test flight. It has added new spoilers to the wings, installed a horizontal propeller stopping mechanism to aid in a successful landing, and made modifications to the algorithms used in the autopilot software.
Gomez said he is aware of the challenges present in trying to connect people around the world with high flying solar aircraft, but that milestones like the successful test flight are encouraging.
“What is particularly gratifying is that the improvements we implemented based on Aquila’s performance during its first test flight made a significant difference in this flight,” said Gomez.