Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila drone completed its second successful flight Thursday near Yuma, Arizona. It stayed aloft for 1 hour and 46 minutes, cruising over the desert and gathering data the team will use to optimize its efficiency moving forward. After the flight was over, the drone landed smoothly without incident, Mark Zuckerberg reported in a Facebook post.
This was the latest step in the Aquila project which will eventually see an entire fleet of the drones staying in flight for months at a time. The unmanned drones will need to be completely optimized to make this kind of longer term performance possible, so these test flights are critically important. Zuckerberg said that Facebook intends to use the drone to increase the world’s access to the internet.
“When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “Today, more than half the world’s population — 4 billion people — still can’t access the internet. One day, Aquila will help change that.”
Aquila’s wingspan is wider than a Boeing 737, but it weighs less than 455 kg (1,000 pounds). To stay aloft, Aquila’s solar panels collect power during the day and stores enough in a battery for the dark hours. It uses about 5,000 W of power at its cruising altitude, which will be about 18,300 meters (60,000 feet). Aquila cruises at a deliberately slow speed of about 129 km/h (80 m/h) to maximize efficiency.
Right now the Aquila team is working to make the craft lighter and trim down its power consumption. They also aim to more accurately assess how much power it will take to operate during the different altitudes and temperatures of take off, flight, and landing, and how those power demands will affect battery size, latitude range, solar panel performance, and seasonal performance. Additional test flights will also allow the team to assess actual in-flight dynamics and see how the massive drone batteries stress the large, flexible wings.
The Aquila fleet is just one way Facebook is working to connect people with technology. Zuckerberg has also revealed that the company is working on a brain-computer interface that will let us communicate using just our minds.