Facebook’s Huge Drone Flies Again (and Doesn’t Crash)
Facebook’s big, solar-powered drone has taken flight once again.
The social networking giant said Thursday that it’s Aquila drone completed its second test flight on May 22 at the Yuma Proving Ground, a U.S. military facility, in Arizona.
The drone, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, flew for 1 hour and 46 minutes and “landed perfectly on our prepared landing site,” wrote Martin Luis Gomez, Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms.
The fact that the drone landed correctly is noteworthy considering that last summer’s test flight had a rocky ending, with strong winds and turbulence leading to technical errors in its autopilot system and the drone’s right wing snapping off.
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Last summer, Facebook (FB) said the first test flight was a success and did not reference the crash. A few months later, however, Bloomberg News reported that the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the accident, which ultimately led to the NTSB releasing a public report of the crash.
In case anyone had doubts about the latest test flight, on Thursday Facebook also showed a short video of the drone landing without smashing in an open field.
Gomez outlined a couple ways ensured that Aquila’s second flight would be smoother than the last, including outfitting the drone with more sensors to gather additional aerial data, tweaking the autopilot software, and “installing a horizontal propeller stopping mechanism to support a successful landing.”
The purpose of this flight appeared to be whether Facebook’s new safety and anti-crashing techniques would work.
Facebook debuted its drone project in 2015, and pitched it as a way for the company to eventually beam the Internet down to areas in the world where people lack web-connectivity. The ultimate goal is for Facebook to fly large fleets of these drones that will hover in the air for days at altitudes of 60,000 to 90,000 feet. From there, the drones will connect to one another and distribute the web down to the earth like a sort of makeshift data center in the high skies.
Aquila reaching an altitude of 3,000 feet for its second test flight is a sign that Facebook is likely years away from reaching its intended goal.
But the company has competition. Chinese media reported in June that the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, a China-based research institution, successfully flew a solar-powered drone over 65,000 feet in the air. The China Daily report did not say how long the flight was, just that the drone “took off in the morning and flew back to the airport late at night.”