Facebook Shuts Down ‘Aqulia’ Drone Program


Bye bye to Somerset-based aerospace outfit Ascenta, as Facebook cancels high altitude drone connectivity program

Facebook is abandoning its plans for a fleet of high flying drones that would beam down Internet connectivity to the planet.

The decision to close down Facebook’s ‘Project Aquila’ (Latin for “eagle), will result in the closure of a facility in Bridgwater (Somerset, UK), that designs and builds Facebook’s high altitude platforms.

It comes after Google in early 2017 also decided to shut down its internet drone project (formerly Titan Aerospace), and instead focus on its balloon-driven Loon initiative.

Eagle drone

Ever since 2014 Facebook has been a player in the high altitude drone market as part of its efforts to expand the Web’s global reach via its Internet.org initiative.

To this end it purchased a tiny British aerospace company Ascenta based in Somerset, for less that $20m (£12m).

At the time of purchase of purchase in 2014, Ascenta was thought to have just five engineers who were specialists in designing and building high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) aircraft.

It is not known how many people will be affected by today’s announcement.

After its acquisition by Facebook, Ascenta’s engineers worked hard and by 2015 they unveiled a solar powered drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737.

The Aquila drone weighed in at 400kg, and was designed to fly between 60,000ft and 90,000ft, so as to avoid adverse weather conditions and commercial air routes.

The plan was for the Aquila drone to remain airborne for 90 days at a time, constantly circling in a two-mile radius.

In 2016 for its inaugural 90-minute flight over the Arizona desert, the Aquila drone unfortunately crashed landed, which the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the US blamed on “an increasing amount of turbulence.”

A much more successful flight took place in 2017, after a number of tweaks and modifications were made after that first flight.

Drone cancellation

But now Facebook has decided to pull the plug on the project.

“To increase our chances of success we took on every part of our aircraft’s design, development, and testing, work that was led by our team in Bridgwater, UK,” wrote Yael Maguire, Facebook’s Director of Engineering, in a blog post.

“Thanks to their efforts, we were able to demonstrate that an aircraft of this design was viable – with two successful full-scale test flights, including a textbook landing on “Aquila beach.”

“As we’ve worked on these efforts, it’s been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology too – including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft,” wrote Maguire.

“Given these developments, we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater,” he confirmed.

“Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on HAPS connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries,”he said.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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