Nearly one year ago, Facebook announced that its Aquila high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft was ready for flight testing, and the social network took the next step Thursday.
Aquila is a solar-powered airplane that can be used to bring affordable internet to hundreds of millions of people in the hardest-to-reach places. 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. Aquila is designed to be hyper-efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts—the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.
He also detailed the steps leading up to Thursday’s successful test flight:
We’ve been flying a one-fifth scale version of Aquila for several months, but this was the first time we’ve flown the full-scale aircraft. This test flight was designed to verify our operational models and overall aircraft design. To prove out the full capacity of the design, we will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years. Failures are expected and sometimes even planned; we learn more when we push the plane to the brink.
This first functional check was a low-altitude flight, and it was so successful that we ended up flying Aquila for more than 90 minutes—three times longer than originally 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. Each test will help us learn and move faster toward our goal.
In a separate blog post, Martin Luis Gomez and director of engineering, telecommunications infrastructure Andrew Cox offered far more details on the preparations that led up to Thursday’s test flight, as well as an outline of the challenges to come: ensuring that Aquila is able to collect enough solar energy; increasing battery power while keeping size to a minimum; working with an unprecedented combination of size and speed for an aircraft; and keeping the project economically viable.
Over the course of the next several months, we’ll continue to study the data we obtained from this initial flight. As we conduct more test flights, we will add more aircraft to the test fleet, fly to higher altitudes and explore both the high-speed regime, where the airframe’s flexibility becomes limiting, and the low-speed loiter regime, where the aircraft will eventually provide connectivity to the ground. We will add instrumentation to the aircraft to help us learn about the structural dynamics, stability and control derivatives and the all-important aerodynamic efficiency. We’ll also experiment with different aircraft form factors, sizes and weights as we learn more.
Readers: What are your thoughts about Aquila’s first test flight?