Facebook has announced it will discontinue all efforts to build high-altitude drones for delivering internet connectivity as part of its Aquila project. The program kicked off back in 2014 in an effort to help deliver fast and low-cost internet connectivity to remote areas using aircraft equipped with four electric engines and a wide variety of other telecom gear.
The Aquila project was just one of the many initiatives Facebook started as part of its broader goal to help people in almost every part of the world get online and eventually use its internet services. For this program, in particular, the social networking giant’s team in Bridgwater, U.K. led the design, development, and testing of its Aquila aircraft. The project has had its share of challenges over the years. In 2016, Facebook’s Aquila drone tests led to a crash, prompting the United States National Transportation Safety Board to launch a formal investigation into the accident. The probe concluded that the incident was caused by a structural failure of the aircraft while it was landing. In June last year, the company completed the second full-scale test flight of Aquila at the Yuma Proving Ground in the state of Arizona. This time, Facebook extensively modified the drone’s structure in order to avoid the previous accident. The changes included the addition of spoilers and the installation of a horizontal propeller stopping mechanism. The aircraft’s control and information gathering systems were also modified with an improved autopilot system, the addition of new sensors, and the inclusion of new radio platforms.
However, as Facebook’s Director of Engineering Yael Maguire noted, a high-altitude platform station connectivity needs something beyond just an aircraft. So Facebook worked to increase the millimeter-wave capability of the aircraft by doubling its capacity “with 40 Gbps connectivity simultaneously in both directions from a ground location to a circling Cessna aircraft over 7 kilometers away.” Now that Facebook is shutting down the Aquila project, the Menlo Park-based company plans to collaborate with Airbus on HAPS connectivity going forward so as to continue its mission of getting the entire planet online.