Facebook’s unmanned solar-powered internet drone takes flight

Facebook has announced the successful first flight of its unmanned solar-power internet drone, which will eventually aim to break the world-record for the longest unmanned aircraft flight.

The Aquila aircraft achieved the milestone on June 28th with a 96-minute low-altitude test flight over Arizona which lasted three times longer than planned, the global corporation’s creator and owner Mark Zuckerberg revealed in a status update on Facebook last night. The test was used to verify and check the plane’s aerodynamic handling, batteries, control systems and crew training.

Facebook’s engineering director Yael Maguire said: “We’re thrilled about what happened with our first flight. There are still a lot of technical challenges that need to be addressed for us to achieve the whole mission.” Maguire added that he hoped the system might be brought into service “in the near future”.

Full-time autopilot

Once fully operational, the high-altitude plane will stay airborne for up to 90 days at a time and beam broadband coverage to a 60-mile-wide area on the ground, helping to open the opportunities of the internet to people in under-connected regions using laser communications and millimetre wave systems.

Controlled by a full-time autopilot, Aquila flew on less than 2.5KW of power during its first flight, and at a night-time altitude of 60,000ft will require approximately. During the winter, the solar panels will aim to collect enough energy during the short days to keep the batteries charged overnight, up to 14 hours at a time.

Over the course of the next several months, Facebook will continue to conduct more test flights in the hope that it will soon break the world record for the longest solar-powered unmanned aircraft flight, which currently stands at two weeks.

Drone technology

Usually visualised as part of a reconnaissance set-up, unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV) are gradually starting to gain prevalence within the world of sustainability.

The concept is being explored by both Google and the Ministry of Defence in an effort to boost low-carbon, connected communication developments.

The issue of drone technology was examined in today’s edie green innovation round-up, with Amazon exploring a scenario where drones would perch on “docking stations” such street lamps, radio towers, electrical poles and even church steeples, to recharge batteries or shelter during bad weather.

Solar Impulse

In related news, the final journey of the solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) is currently facing delays due to extreme weather conditions and the poor health of one of its pilots.

The plane was due to depart Cairo on July 16 to make its final short trip to Abu Dhabi, but the team were forced to postpone as Bertrand Piccard was suffering from an illness. Since then, the intense summer heat in the Middle East has caused less dense air in high altitude, meaning that the airplane must wait until it requires less energy to remain level and climb higher.

Last year, Si2 conquered the skies using the sun’s power from Abu Dhabi, across Oman, India, Myanmar, China, and Japan before grounding in Hawaii. Following repair work, the aircraft continued its journey by flying over the Pacific Ocean to the USA, before travelling across Southern Europe to Seville. The aircraft next landed in Cairo on 13 July and is expected to fly to Abu Dhabi within the next month.

George Ogleby

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