Facebook hopes to deliver more internet access
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday the social network ran a second test flight of its massive, solar-powered Aquila drone last month at Yuma Proving Ground, and it was the first that didn’t end in a crash landing.
Zuckerberg’s morning post shot quickly around local social circles, as they reveled in another after-the-fact reveal, which came a year and a day after the initial flight of the unmanned aircraft he hopes will deliver internet access to remote corners of the world.
Calling it “Aquila’s second successful flight,” Zuckerberg said, “In this test, it flew for 1 hour and 46 minutes over the desert and landed smoothly near Yuma, Arizona,” he said, using that location tag, although YPG is about 30 miles to the northwest.
He added, “We successfully gathered a lot of data to help us optimize Aquila’s efficiency. No one has ever built an unmanned airplane that will fly for months at a time, so we need to tune every detail to get this right.”
The 30-second video accompa-
nying the post showed the V-shaped, propeller-driven craft gliding over the mountains and coming to a smooth halt in the sand at YPG.
More details were given by Martin Luis Gomez, Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms, in a blog on the code.facebook. com website. He said several changes had been made to the drone in the past year, including a spoiler on the end of each wing to increase drag and decrease lift and a horizontal propeller stopping system, both to smooth out the landing.
A smoother finish and hundreds of additional sensors were also added to the aircraft, which weighs about 1,000 pounds and has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 747. The drone runs mostly on autopilot, but there are manned ground crews to manage certain maneuvers.
The flight took off at about 5:30 a.m. and lasted for an hour and 46 minutes, Gomez said, with the engineering team watching a live stream from a helicopter chasing the drone. It reached an elevation of 3,000 feet.
Much of Gomez’s post was devoted to describing the landing, which went as planned except three of the four propellers didn’t lock in horizontal position for the touchdown, as they’d been programmed to do to avoid being damaged.
Overall, the plane suffered a few “minor, easily repairable dings” from landing on a gravel surface, a 500-foot circle of level gravel which was the designated landing pad. Gomez said YPG staff quickly named the site “Aquila Beach.”
Gomez said his team was thrilled about the outcome, especially because “the improvements we implemented based on Aquila’s performance during its first test flight made a significant difference in this flight.”
The blog and video did not indicate whether Zuckerberg watched the flight in person, as he had during the inaugural flight last year.
That initial voyage was also not confirmed by Facebook for about a month after it happened, though the news leaked into the Yuma community just as it happened. At the time, it was called a “successful flight” lasting 90 minutes, much longer than the half-hour expected. The crash landing didn’t become public until the National Transportation Safety Board released a report on the incident in December.
The May 22 flight was also done secretively within the vast holdings of YPG, an Army-operated military testing ground for both U.S. and foreign forces, and also by General Motors and some other corporate users.
“I didn’t know anything about it until after it happened,” said Chuck Wullenjohn, YPG spokesman.
Veronica Shorr, Yuma’s regional director for the Arizona Community Foundation, was excited enough about Zuckerberg’s post Wednesday to post one of the more than 3,500 comments it had gotten by 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
“Mark, I hope you fell in love with Yuma! Our community is ground zero for a lot of projects like this — giving us the perfect opportunity to promote STEM in our schools and community!” Shorr wrote, also encouraging the increasingly philanthropic founder to look into supporting the Yuma Community Fund’s technology-related programs.
She told the Yuma Sun she would have loved to see Zuckerberg speak to students at local schools. “Unfortunately he didn’t do that, but I think this is great, just him acknowledging Yuma in his post is a huge success, because now he’s putting Yuma on the map, worldwide.”
She noted other comments came in from India, Japan, South Africa and other nations, and a Facebook user from Kenya replied “Great” to her comment.
“So how cool to show this to our students. I can’t wait to go home and show my son, ‘look at this, this was tested in Yuma, and if this becomes a reality there’s going to be internet access for 4 billion people around the world, so what a great thing to say ‘Hey, it happened here’ or ‘It started here,’” she said, quoting figures Zuckerberg used in his post.
The Aquila aircraft, when fully developed, are intended to stay aloft for 90 days at a time and beam a broadband internet signal to a 60-mile wide area on the ground, from an altitude of up to 60,000 feet.
On Tuesday, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook now has more than 2 billion users.