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After a few glitches, Facebook is confident its drones will provide internet to 4 billion people

Around 4 billion people across the world don’t have internet access.

Facebook's Aquila drone.
Facebook's Aquila drone.
Image: Facebook

FACEBOOK COMPLETED ITS first successful flight of a solar-powered drone this week that could provide worldwide internet access.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg and his team of engineers are developing a drone called Aquila which could provide internet access to 4 billion people who are currently unconnected.

“When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world,” Zuckerburg wrote on Facebook.

Weighing about 1,000 lbs, the unmanned drone is powered by four electric engines.

It flew for one hour and 46 minutes over a desert landscape and landed successfully near Yuma, Arizona on 29 June.

The launch speed of the drone was calculated at 27 mph.

The drone climbed at 180 feet per minute — to 3,000 feet. When flying upwards, Facebook said it moved at 10-15 mph over the ground.

Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms Martin Luis Gomez said:

“We designed Aquila this way because it is meant to stay in the same area for long periods of time to supply internet access. Aquila is solar-powered and extremely power-efficient, running on the power equivalent of three blow dryers.”

The Aquila team watched the flight from a nearby engineering station through a video stream which displayed the view from their nearby helicopter.

19285079_105445746704083_7137527912651030528_n Facebook's Aquila drone climbed to 3,000 feet. Source: Facebook

Not without difficulties

It’s been a long journey to get the drone – with a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 737 – to fly a successful flight.

The American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched an investigation into an accident during the drone’s first flight on 28 June 2016.

At the time, Zuckerburg announced on Facebook that the flight had been successful.

“Our original mission was to fly Aquila for 30 minutes, but things went so well that we decided to keep the plane up for 96 minutes,” he said.

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“We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure – and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground.”

However, it was then revealed that a “structural failure”, which saw the drone crash, resulted in an NTSB investigation, according to a report seen by Bloomberg News.

The accident was the last hiccup to date in Facebook’s plans to provide wireless connectivity to across the world.

Gomez said: ”Aquila’s second flight took into account the lessons we learned from our first flight. In advance of the second flight, we incorporate a number of modifications to Aquila.”

These changes included:

  • Added “spoilers” to the wings, which help to increase drag and reduce lift during the landing approach
  • Hundreds of new sensors to gather new data
  • Modified autopilot software
  • New radios for the communication system
  • Horizontal propellers to support a successful landing

“The improvements we implemented based on Aquila’s performance during its first test flight made a significant difference in this flight,” Gomez said.

Zuckerburg admitted that while the flight was successful, it’s not ready for full-use yet.

“No one has ever built an unmanned airplane that will fly for months at a time, so we need to tune in every detail to get this right,” he said.

When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world.

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