Facebook Aquila drone crash initiates safety investigation

California,Nov22:Facebook tested a solar-powered drone designed to beam internet access to remote areas of the world in June for the first time, but the mission didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Now a national safety agency is investigating an accident that happened during that test flight.

The drone, called Aquila, suffered from a “structural failure” right before it landed at 7:43 am mountain standard time near Yuma, Arizona, on June 28, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

Facebook’s drone was “substantially damaged,” but there were no injuries or ground damage, Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mail. There were no more details available about the accident or damage, but a report about the incident is expected to be released in a month or two, he said.

Knudson said that the NTSB “investigates any accident of an unmanned aircraft system (drone) with a gross takeoff weight of at least 300 pounds that results in death or serious injury to any person or substantial damage to the aircraft.”

Facebook’s drone has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737 and weighs less than 1,000 pounds or about the same as a grand piano. The body of the aircraft is made up of carbon fiber composite and has styrofoam skids.

Substantial damage “means damage or failure which adversely affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component,” according to the Code of Federal Regulations.

Facebook’s drone accident highlights some of the recent challenges tech firms face as they try to deliver internet to developing countries. This year, India’s telecom regulator blocked Facebook’s free basic internet service because of net neutrality concerns. In September, a SpaceX rocket explosion destroyed a Facebook satellite meant to deliver internet to rural areas in Africa.

For Facebook, though, the June test flight of Aquila was still considered a success. In a July, the company mentioned the drone’s structural failure in a post about the test flight, but not that the NTSB was investigating the accident.

“We were happy with the successful first test flight and were able to verify several performance models and components including aerodynamics, batteries, control systems and crew training, with no major unexpected results. We have already learned a lot from the results of this flight test and will continue to learn from all the future flight tests we plan to run,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement.

Aquila’s test flight lasted for 96 minutes, which was three times longer than what the company planned. During the flight, the aircraft was pushed to its limits.

Since the accident, Facebook learned a lot more about the structural damage that occurred and has implemented fixes, a person familiar with the matter said. It doesn’t set back the tech firm’s plans to deliver internet access to remote areas and Facebook has three additional drones aside from Aquila, the source said.

Bloomberg, which broke this story earlier, reported that Facebook’s drone accident was the second involving a drone designed to fly for long periods of time as a cheaper alternative to satellites. In May 2015, Alphabet’s Solara 50 drone crashed at a desert landing strip in New Mexico after one of its wings failed as it flew in a thermal updraft.

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