Facebook ends solar-powered Aquila UAS project

By Patrick C. Miller | June 29, 2018

Facebook announced on Wednesday that it’s ending a project to build the Aquila solar-powered, high-altitude unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to provide global internet access.

Yael Maguire, director of engineering for Facebook, announced in a company blog post that the Aquila project—which began in 2014 and was based in Bridgwater, U.K.—was coming to an end. He noted that although Facebook started from scratch on the aircraft’s design and made important breakthroughs in communications technology, other aerospace companies are now working to design and build high-altitude platform stations (HAPS).

“Given these developments, we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgwater,” Maguire wrote. “Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on HAPS connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries.”

Facebook’s Bridgwater team conducted two successful full-scale test flights of the Aquila, according to Maguire, demonstrating that the aircraft’s design was viable. On the aircraft’s first flight in June 2016 at Yuma, Arizona, it crashed while landing. An unexpected gust of wind blew off a 20-foot section of the Aquila’s wing.

Maguire said Facebook has made progress on key parts of the system, such as setting records with millimeter wave technology in air-to-ground and point-to-point communication. “We’ve also pushed for improvements to spectrum and aviation policy—including more consistency in the global regulatory environment to open up HAPS to new entrants,” he said.

Facebook is working on a proposal for the 2019 World Radio Conference to secure more spectrum for HAPS and will participate on aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees, both in the U.S. and internationally, Maguire said. In addition, he said the company is working with partners on new infrastructure projects and supporting entrepreneurs to help bring internet connectivity to the 4 billion people who don’t have access to it.

“Connectivity for everyone, everywhere is one of the great challenges of our generation,” Maguire said. “Facebook has already connected nearly 100 million people as a result of our efforts.”