Facebook’s ambitious solar-powered plane Aquila, that aims to beam free Internet from the sky is now under investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for ‘structural failure’. The news was first reported by Bloomberg. The incident occurred during the first flight of the unmanned aircraft on June 28, with no injuries to anyone on the ground.
The long-endurance, high-altitude solar aircraft had suffered structural failure as it was coming into land after its first flight according to an undisclosed investigation that was done by the NTSB. The investigative agency termed it as an ‘accident’, which signifies that the plane received substantial damage. NTSB is a US federal agency that is responsible for investigating any incident or accident that pertains to flight safety.
Facebook had made a web post on July 21 talking about the structural failure of the test plane, but did not mention the details of the NTSB investigation. “We are still analyzing the results of the extended test, including a structural failure we experienced just before landing. We hope to share more details on this and other structural tests in the future,” the post said.
After the first flight, the company was able to share some details of the 96 minutes flight. “The low-altitude test flight lasted for 96 minutes — more than three times our planned mission length — and provided our aeronautics team with data on numerous aspects of Aquila’s performance, including the autopilot, motors, batteries, radios, ground station, displays, basic aerodynamic handling, structural viability, and crew training,” the post said.
Facebook Aquila is made for long-endurance flights and is hence optimised to have ‘minimal mass’, and it does so by not including a traditional landing gear to the air frame. A source told TechCrunch that some damage was expected at landing, considering that the plane is not designed for repeated take offs and landings.
Facebook’s Aquila project is designed to bring Internet to places difficult to reach using conventional methods. To do this, the plane is designed to stay in the sky for months on end, and is powered by four electric engines attached to wings that are larger than the wingspan of the Boeing 737.
Considering that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants an entire fleet of Aquila aircraft to navigate around the globe at 60,000 feet, its likely that any future accidents related to the aircraft will face a close scrutiny.