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Facebook’s Aquila drone takes to the skies

Aquila in flight. Source: Facebook

Facebook’s solar-powered, internet-beaming drone Aquila has passed its first full-scale flight test

A new drone developed by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has passed its first flight test.

The first full-scale version of Aquila – a solar-powered aircraft designed to beam the Internet in remote areas – was tested last month. The aircraft flew for a total of 96 minutes, taking off and landing from the Yuma Proving Ground, in Yuma, Arizona.

The high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned draft has wings of cured carbon fibre and a wingspan longer than that of a Boeing 737 airplane. But it only weighs about as much as one-third of an electric car.

When fully developed, Aquila should be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet. Designed to fly up for to three months at a time, it will consume only 5,000 watts or about as much as three hairdryers.

It provides internet via E-band laser technology, which it claims is able to “send data at fibre-optic speeds using very little power.”

But the Connectivity Lab still has to tackle problems such as how to fly the drone during months with long winter nights. The current record for solar-powered unmanned flight stands at two weeks, suggesting the final three-month flight time may be a way off yet.

Aquila was built by a team of experts including aerospace, avionics, mechanical and software engineers, designers, technicians, operators and logistics specialists. Members of the team have previous experience at NASA, Boeing, DARPA, Northrop Grumman, and the British Royal Air Force, among other organisations, said Facebook.

In a blog post, Facebook engineers Martin Luis Gomez and Andrew Cox noted that: “We need to develop more efficient onboard power and communication systems; ensure the aircraft are resilient to structural damage to reduce maintenance costs, and able to stay aloft for long periods of time to keep fleet numbers low.”


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