Facebook has completed a successful test-flight of its Aquila drone, intended to provide Internet access to unconnected parts of the world, after a first effort ended in a crash.
The solar-powered drone, whose name is Latin for “eagle”, flew for one hour and 46 minutes and reached an altitude of 3,000 feet.
“When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote on the social media site.
The flight occurred on 22 May just after dawn, according to Facebook and local media reports, taking off and landing at the Yuma Proving Ground in south-west Arizona.
The latest model incorporates modifications including spoilers on its wings to increase drag and reduce lift during the landing approach, more sensors to gather data, modified autopilot software, new communications radios, a smoother finish and a mechanism for stopping the propellers in a horizontal position so they aren’t damaged on landing.
“This second flight was all about data,” wrote Facebook director of aeronautical platforms Martin Luis Gomez in a blog post.
He said the data collected would be used to refine the aerodynamic models used to predict the drone’s energy usage and optimise the sizes of its its batteries and solar array.
The drone weighs roughly 1,000 pounds and has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 747.
It is designed to run mostly on autopilot, landing under the control of an algorithm, with a ground crew manually carrying out certain manoeuvres such as lining up with the wind.
The drone flies at a slow speed – 10 to 15 miles per hour when moving upwind – and lands on skids beneath its battery pods. At the end of the test flight it came to a halt after about 10 metres, Gomez said.
“We successfully gathered a lot of data to help us optimize Aquila’s efficiency,” he wrote.
Google’s competing Project Loon, which aims to deliver Internet access via high-altitude balloons, helped provide connectivity to Peruvians in the wake of serious flooding in May.
Google also had plans to deliver connectivity via drones but officially shuttered that project in January after quietly stopping trials sometime in early 2015.
Google had acquired Titan Aerospace in April 2014, a month after Facebook announced plans to make its own drones.
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