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Facebook Aquila drone
Facebook’s Aquila drone takes to the air. (Facebook Engineering Photo)

The drive to provide global internet access from the air is more of a horse race in the wake of Facebook’s second test flight of its full-scale Aquila high-altitude drone – a flight that the company said was more successful than the first one.

Facebook is developing the ultralight, solar-powered drone as a platform for beaming down network connectivity from a height of more than 60,000 feet, for months at a time. The idea is to provide internet service – including, of course, access to Facebook and its advertisers – to some of the billions of people who are in areas too remote for existing avenues of access.

A year ago, Facebook’s first test flight ended in a crash that substantially damaged the aircraft, apparently due to a gust of wind that put the drone in the wrong configuration for landing.

It took months for Facebook to fine-tune the drone’s design for the second flight, conducted May 22 at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The upgraded design includes spoilers on the wings to increase drag and reduce lift during the landing sequence.

In Thursday’s blog posting about the test, Facebook’s Martin Luis Gomez made a point of saying the 1-hour, 46-minute test run had a “smoother finish.”

The sensor-equipped drone flew autonomously for most of the time, and Gomez said “the only surprise was a happy one”: The aircraft’s climb rate of 180 feet per minute was twice as high as it was for the first flight, apparently due to the team’s aerodynamic refinements.

Facebook Aquila drone
Facebook’s Aquila drone has a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 737 jet, but it’s designed to run on as much power as three blow dryers. (Facebook Engineering Photo)

When it was time to land, controllers programmed the drone’s approach to a 500-foot-wide circular landing pad that was covered with gravel and nicknamed Aquila Beach.

“We had a ringside seat as the aircraft smoothly slid to a stop in a cloud of dust — and the engineering station erupted in cheers. … Needless to say, the entire team was thrilled with these results,” Gomez wrote.

Although Facebook officially rated the flight as “successful,” the landing was still a bit rough. The four propellers are designed to stop and lock themselves into a horizontal position just before landing to avoid damage at touchdown, but only one of the propellers locked properly.

“Similar to driving a car on a gravel surface, landing a plane on gravel causes a few minor, easily repairable dings, but otherwise, Aquila landed in great shape,” Gomez said.

If the flight test program succeeds, Facebook intends to sends fleets of the 141-foot-wingspan drones into the air over low-connectivity regions. At the same time that it’s testing the planes, it’s also working on the low-power networking equipment that’ll be put on those planes.

In April, Facebook Connectivity Lab’s Yael Maguire said engineers have upped transmission rates to levels ranging from 16 gigabits per second for ground-to-air, up to 80 Gbps using an optical crosslink in ground tests bridging a distance of eight miles.

Facebook is facing plenty of competition. If you want to handicap the race to provide aerial internet access, here’s a tip sheet for the other contestants:

  • Google (technically, Alphabet’s X) has been working for years on Project Loon, a scheme to beam the internet from high-flying balloons.
  • OneWeb has more than $1.5 billion in backing for a satellite constellation that would provide global internet access from low Earth orbit. Launches could begin as early as next year, with service due to start in 2019.
  • SpaceX has plans for its own internet satellite constellation, with its office in Redmond, Wash., serving as a development center. A prototype satellite could be launched by the end of the year.
  • Boeing is seeking a spectrum license for a satellite system that would provide advanced telecommunications services for commercial and government users.

How many of these ventures will make it through a gauntlet of technical and regulatory challenges? How many can succeed in the market? The answers are up in the air, but it seems unlikely that all these players will be able to get their concepts for aerial access off the ground.

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