A U.S. safety agency is investigating an accident involving a massive experimental drone Facebook Inc. is developing to bring the internet to remote areas of the world.
No one was hurt in the incident, which came during the unmanned aircraft’s first test flight on June 28. It marks the latest hiccup in Facebook’s plans to wirelessly connect the world, following an explosion earlier this year that destroyed one of its satellites and political resistance to the service in India.
The high-altitude drone, which has a wingspan wider than a Boeing Co. 737 and is powered by four electric engines, suffered a “structural failure” as it was coming in for a landing, according to a previously undisclosed investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“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,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
While there has been no previous mention of the NTSB investigation or details about the incident, the company did say the drone, called Aquila, had had a structural failure in a July 21 web post.
The accident occurred at 7:43 a.m. local time near Yuma, Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said. The NTSB has classified the failure as an accident, meaning the damage was “substantial.” There was no damage on the ground, Knudson said.
The flying wing designed to eventually be solar powered so it can remain aloft for long stretches. The social-media company is seeking to boost the percent of people around the world who connect to the internet by leapfrogging ground-based infrastructure limitations.
Company Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said he was “deeply disappointed” when a SpaceX rocket explosion Sept. 1 destroyed a Facebook satellite that would have helped spread internet access across Africa.
The company has also had political hurdles. In India, for example, Zuckerberg was surprised when people rejected the company’s offer of free web services that had Facebook at the center. Locals saw it as a poorly-disguised land grab of the Indian internet market, instead of a charitable project.
Interest in Indonesia
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla spoke to Zuckerberg in recent days at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru about using the Aquila drone to beam internet to remote parts of the country, the Jakarta Post reported.
“If we make the right investments now, we can connect billions of people in the next decade and lead the way for our generation to do great things,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post from the summit on Saturday.
Zuckerberg was so excited about the drone aircraft’s first flight that he flew to the test facility in Arizona early on June 28, according to an account in The Verge.
In a web post after the flight, he said it was so successful it was extended from 30 to 96 minutes. “We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure — and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground,” Zuckerberg wrote.
The accident was the second involving an unmanned aircraft designed to fly for long periods as a less expensive alternative to satellites. An Alphabet Inc. drone known as the Solara 50 was destroyed May 1, 2015, at a desert landing strip in New Mexico after experiencing control problems as it flew in a thermal updraft, according to the NTSB.
The aircraft are made with the latest carbon-fiber technology in an attempt to make them as light as possible so they can stay aloft with minimum power.
Facebook’s drone has a wingspan of 141 feet (43 meters) and weighs 900 pounds (408 kilograms). It has no traditional fuselage and is built almost entirely of thin, black wings. It flies slowly, using only the energy required to power three hair driers, according to Facebook.
Aquila is designed to fly for months at a time, using solar energy to replenish batteries at altitudes above 60,000 feet (18,288 meters). It will be equipped with a laser communications system that can deliver data 10 times faster than current technologies, Facebook said in a promotional video.
The NTSB hasn’t yet released any of its preliminary findings on the extent of the damage or the potential causes of the failure.
Dr. Hans C. Mumm