Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Facebook’s plans for a massive drone to beam internet access to underserved communities across the globe has crashed and burned, and along with it plans to test the aircraft at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
The social media giant announced in a blog Wednesday that it’s terminating efforts to build the Aquila, a solar-powered drone with a wing span the size of a Boeing 737, which Facebook has been working on since 2014 after acquiring the U.K.-based aerospace firm Ascenta.
The company had investigated logistics for flight testing and other research and development in New Mexico. It even signed a short-term lease with the Spaceport and worked with facility officials in 2016 and 2017 on site preparation.
But current Spaceport infrastructure proved inadequate for the Aquila, and the drone itself may have been technologically too complicated for Facebook to continue developing.
On Wednesday, Facebook engineer Yael Maquire said the company would instead look for other firms to partner with, such as aerospace manufacturer Airbus, to develop the high-altitude aircraft and other technology needed to provide airborne internet service.
“We’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgewater (England),” Maquire wrote in her post.
The program has been shrouded in secrecy since its start, including efforts to turn the Spaceport into an Aquila testbed.
In April, Business Insider was the first to report Facebook was working with the Spaceport based on series of emails between the company and Spaceport officials obtained through the New Mexico public records law. The emails indicate that a nondisclosure agreement was signed to preserve Facebook’s anonymity, with the company referred to under the code name Denali in public documents.
On Wednesday, however, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed company efforts to test the Aquila in New Mexico.
“Beginning in 2016 we worked with Spaceport to see if their facility could be a potential test site for our connectivity efforts,” the spokesman said in an email to the Journal. “Because site investments like these require a long lead time, we often pursue multiple options at once and make initial investments and preparations so we can move quickly if we end up needing to use that site. We ultimately signed a short-term lease with Spaceport and worked with them on some lightweight site prep, but we have no plans for further investment in any operations at this time.”
The emails obtained by Business Insider indicate that Facebook sought significant facility improvements to accommodate the Aquila at the Spaceport, according to a report Tuesday in the IEEE Spectrum technology blog. The modifications reflected Aquila’s complex technology, including a lack of landing gear to avoid adding weight to the craft, which made the current Spaceport runway too short for Facebook’s launch needs.
Facebook also explored carving out a sandy landing zone in the desert area north of the runway, but that could have created problems with wildlife and archaeological sites.
Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks said the facility is well-suited for unmanned aerial systems, but individual needs can vary. In fact, Google, which has also been developing drones and other systems for internet connectivity, tested some of its technology at the Spaceport in 2016.
“We’re ideally suited for doing research and development efforts safely and securely, be it with Google, Facebook or others,” Hicks said. “We have real potential to support both the space industry and unmanned aerial systems here.”
The Aquila technology may have simply been too complex for Facebook to continue developing. The craft was intended to fly at very high altitudes for years at a time, powered by troves of solar cells, equipped with batteries to keep flying when the sun doesn’t shine and lasers to beam internet connections.
But to work, the craft must remain lightweight, making its aerodynamics extremely difficult, said John Brown, president and CEO of Silent Falcon UAS Technologies, which builds solar-powered drones in Albuquerque.
“The Aquila was designed to fly 60,000 to 80,000 feet up above the weather and remain there for years, but the sheer mechanics of putting that together is not easy,” Brown said. “Imagine something the size of a 737, covered in solar panels and internet payloads, and yet it has to have almost no weight. It’s a formidable challenge, and I’m not surprised Facebook punted on it.”