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News & Notes

Facebook's Solar Wi-Fi Drone Completes Successful Second Flight

Watch it stick its landing

June 29, 2017

Facebook announced today that its solar-powered Aquila drone conducted a successful second flight on May 22. Last July, the high-altitude drone designed to deliver Wi-Fi signals flew its first full-scale test flight ― but it experienced a structural failure before landing.

During its second flight, the drone flew for 1 hour and 46 minutes and landed successfully, according to a Facebook Engineering Blog post. Since the first flight, Aquila was modified to include various upgrades: spoilers on the wings, new radios for the communication system, and a horizontal propeller-stopping mechanism for landing.

“The climb rate ― at 180 [feet per minute] ― was nearly twice as fast as on our first flight. We attribute this to the numerous refinements to Aquila — especially a smoother finish — that were based on learnings from our first flight,” according to the post.

Facebook says the drone landed gently, though it did receive “easily-repairable dings” due to landing on gravel. There is no traditional landing gear on the drone. Instead, it lands on Kevlar pads that are attached to the motor pads. When landing, the newly modified autopilot system stopped all the propellers on the aircraft in order to lock them horizontally so they wouldn’t be damaged. However, this locking mechanism only worked on one of the propellers. Though, Facebook is likely taking this as a learning lesson. We hear third time’s the charm.

The Aquila drone has a wingspan slightly larger than a Boeing 737 airplane, is built from carbon fiber, and will ideally stay aloft for months. Facebook wants to use drones like the Aquila to beam Wi-Fi to the world’s unconnected people, which is about 60% of the world’s population. Read more about internet-beaming drones here.

“Connecting people through high-altitude solar-powered aircraft is an audacious goal, but milestones like this flight make the months of hard work worth it. And 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,” according to the post.
Featured image: Facebook