Massive Solar Powered Drone Takes Flight

A full-scale version of Facebook’s huge Aquila solar powered drone has successfully completed its first test flight in Yuma, Arizona.

We first reported on Aquila back in August last year. The unmanned airplane has a wingspan of around 42 metres – the same as a Boeing 737 – which is covered by solar cells.

Far lighter than a Boeing due to its design and carbon fibre structure, around half the weight of the craft is taken up by lithium-ion batteries. Its cured carbon fiber wings are stronger than steel for the same mass of material.

Aquila will ultimately fly far above the clouds and commercial air traffic, enabling it to be fully solar powered during daylight hours and by its batteries, recharged by the solar array, during the night.

The goal of the project is to create a fleet of Aquila-type craft that will beam internet access to remote and underserved communities around the world.

Free space laser communications, operating at fibre optic speed, will create a network between the craft  and e-band technology will transmit data to receivers on the ground.

The recent test flight went for 90 minutes, three times longer than planned.

“We were able to verify several performance models and components, including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems, and crew training. In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet,” says Jay Parikh, Facebook’s Global Head of Engineering and Infrastructure.

The final version of Aquila will be able to stay aloft for up to 3 months at a time.

“When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems,” stated Mr. Parikh.

Aquila will consume around the same amount of electricity as a couple of small fan-heaters when at its cruising speed.

As to when Aquila will be ready for prime-time; that isn’t clear. Mr. Parikh says the Facebook Connectivity Labs team still has a long way to go before realising their goal of Aquila playing an important part in providing internet access for all.


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