Facebook Reveals First Flight of Solar-Powered Aquila Drone

 - July 21, 2016, 4:06 PM
The Aquila solar-powered unmanned aircraft is shown on the runway in the photograph made available by Facebook.

Social networking site Facebook has conducted the first full-scale test flight of its Aquila unmanned solar-powered airplane. The maiden flight took place on June 28 at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona; the feat was announced by Facebook on July 21.

A boomerang-shaped airplane with winglets and four propellers, the Aquila is a product of Facebook’s March 2014 acquisition of Ascenta-Aerospace of Yeovil, UK. Facebook has flown a one-fifth-scale version of the airplane for several months now. The full-scale version, which has a wingspan of 137 feet, flew to an altitude of 2,150 feet and stayed aloft for 96 minutes on its first flight.

Facebook’s plan is to develop the Aquila to close gaps in global Internet coverage. Flying in the stratosphere at 60,000 to 90,000 feet, it would communicate with other aircraft in a fleet using lasers—a method called “free space optics”—and with receivers on the ground using millimeter-wave wireless technology. “Our team designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at 10s of Gbps (billions of bits per second), approximately ten times faster than the previous state-of-the-art, to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away,” Facebook claims.

The concept calls for the Aquila to fly orbits of up to 60 miles in diameter for up to three months at a time. At cruising speed it will consume 5,000 watts, the same amount of electricity used by three hair dryers, Facebook said. To reach the endurance goal, the company will have to break the current world record for a solar-powered unmanned aircraft flight held by the QinetiQ Zephyr, which stayed airborne for more than 336 hours in July 2010.

“To prove out the full capacity of the design, Facebook will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years,” the company said. “As encouraging as the first successful flight is, there is still plenty of work to be done.”