On Thursday, Facebook announced that Aquila had completed its second test flight on May 22 without incidents. It means the “flying router” project is a step closer to becoming a reality.
Engineers said they had learned from past experiences and modified the aircraft in advance to avoid the problems that caused Aquila’s first flight to end in an accident.
The drone glided over the skies of Arizona at dawn for one hour and 46 minutes in total. Hundreds of additional sensors were built into the massive drone for the flight, and engineers also included wing spoilers, horizontal propellers, new radios, and an enhanced version of the autopilot software to safeguard the landing.
How does the Aquila work?
Facebook’s Aquila is a solar-powered aircraft designed to be extremely energy-efficient, so it can beam wireless internet down to remote locations of the world where there is no broadband access, or it is just way too expensive for average citizens.
The Aquila’s aerodynamics are unique, to say the least. It has a wider wingspan than a Boeing 737, making it more than 100 feet wide from one wing tip to the other. Yet, it is made mostly out of a carbon fiber composite that, together with the solar battery packs, makes the whole thing weigh less than 1,000 pounds.
The V-shaped drone has continued to get lighter and lighter according to Facebook, and now it weighs around the same as a grand piano in spite of the additional equipment.
Computer models have helped the aeronautical platforms division of the social media giant to see how the lightweight plane will behave under certain conditions. The Aquila is prone to deform due to the weight the battery loads put on the wings, but these predictive models have avoided greater disasters in test flights.
Facebook added spoilers to the wings this time around to increase drag and reduce lift so that the plane stays more stable mid-air for more time.
The Aquila’s top speed is 80 miles per hour mid-flight and, with time, the team that remotely operates it expects it can break the record for the longest unmanned flight ever when it stays up in the air for months at the time.
The biggest challenge is energy consumption, but the Aquila flies at 60,000 feet using just 5,000 W of power, roughly the same energy that three hair dryers consume at once.
In time, the Aquila fleet will be able to transfer data 10 times faster than current telecom systems. However, by the time that happens, 5G networks might catch up.