On June 29, Facebook announced the second test flight of Aquila – the company’s unmanned, solar-powered plane that will beam internet to remote parts of the world. During the plane’s first test last year, Aquila’s flight ended in a structural failure that affected the craft’s landing. This time, however, Aquila “landed perfectly” according to Martin Luiz Gomez, Facebook‘s director of aeronautical platforms.
As Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained last year, Aquila has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737, but has to weigh as little as possible to stay up for as long as possible.
“That’s why the body of the plane is made of a carbon fiber composite so the whole thing weighs less than 1,000 pounds — or about the same as a grand piano,” Zuckerberg wrote in a 2016 blog post. “We need to continue to make it lighter.”
Gomez says Aquila’s second test flight took into account the lessons Facebook learned from the first flight. In advance of the second flight, the company incorporated a number of modifications to Aquila, including adding “spoilers” to the wings to increase drag and reduce lift during the landing approach. The Aquila team also incorporated hundreds of sensors to gather new data, modified the autopilot software, integrated new radios, applied a smoother finish on the plane and installed a horizontal propeller stopping mechanism to support a successful landing.
Gomez adds that Aquila “has no landing gear in the traditional sense.” It lands on Kevlar pads bonded to the bottom of the motor pods.
In total, the second test flight lasted one hour and 46 minutes. Eventually, Facebook wants to break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flight. Zuckerberg also envisions that one day, Facebook will have a fleet of Aquilas flying together at 60,000 feet, communicating with each other with lasers and staying up for months at a time, which has never been done before.
Click here to see the flight.