Af­ter Google grounds drone project, Face­book boosts flights

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - GILES TURNER

While Google shut­tered its Ti­tan drone project, Face­book is plan­ning to ramp up test flights for its own ex­per­i­men­tal so­lar-pow­ered glider.

Face­book will be­gin launch­ing a cou­ple of flights each month of its Aquila drone, Jay Parikh, head of en­gi­neer­ing and in­fra­struc­ture, said Mon­day at the Mo­bile World Congress in Barcelona.

“We learned a lot, from data, to how it turned, how it han­dled and the bat­tery per­for­mance,” Parikh said. “The sys­tems per­formed way bet­ter than planned.

“But we need to fly a lot more and more reg­u­larly.”

The high-alti­tude drone, which has a wing­span wider than a Boe­ing 737 and is pow­ered by four elec­tric en­gines, had its first test flight last June. How­ever, a re­port by the U.S. Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in Novem­ber said the drone suf­fered a “struc­tural fail­ure” as it was com­ing in for land­ing.

Aquila’s gi­ant fly­ing wing is so­lar pow­ered, de­signed so it can re­main aloft for long stretches.

Face­book chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Zucker­berg has been busy de­vis­ing new ways to con­nect as much of the world’s pop­u­la­tion as pos­si­ble to the In­ter­net, which in­cludes leapfrog­ging ground-based in­fra­struc­ture lim­i­ta­tions and beam­ing con­nec­tiv­ity from the sky.

Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc.’s re­search lab said in Jan­uary it shut down Ti­tan in early 2016. Google beat Face­book in bid­ding for Ti­tan Aero­space in 2014, lead­ing Face­book to pur­chase U.K.-based Aquila, which was al­ready build­ing so­lar-pow­ered air­planes. Project Loon, an­other Google en­ter­prise to beam In­ter­net from high-alti­tude bal­loons, is still go­ing.

Aquila is still in its early stages, said Parikh. While much of the aero­space de­sign is done on a farm in a ru­ral part of south­west Eng­land, the soft­ware is de­vel­oped in Cal­i­for­nia and the test­ing will re­main in Ari­zona.

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