Why Facebook calls Aquila drone test flight a success – despite crashing

Facebook's Aquila drone – one of the enormous drones with which the company plans to connect to the world – had a successful test flight before experiencing 'structural failure.'

Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds a propeller pod of the solar-powered Aquila drone on stage during a keynote at the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco, California on April 12, 2016.

An experimental Facebook drone is now the subject of a federal safety investigation after a structural failure caused it to crash.

But Facebook isn’t letting that hiccup define the project as a failure.

The drone, which is named Aquila and has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, experienced a “structural failure” while approaching Yuma, Ariz. during a test flight last summer, a spokesman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board told The Wall Street Journal. No one was injured.

The drone is part of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which aims to bring wireless connections to areas around the globe that lack sufficient internet service. While the crash resulted in structural damage to the drone, the company says the test flight was a success, leading them to extend the duration from around 30 minutes to 90.

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,” a spokesperson for Facebook told Bloomberg in a statement.

The crash isn’t the only roadblock Facebook has hit with its free internet initiative. In September, the company sought to launch a satellite into space that would bring internet access to various parts of Africa, but an unexpected explosion destroyed the equipment. The company has also seen pushback from India, which rejected the company’s offer for free internet services that would have centered around Facebook.

Still, the project may have found favor in Indonesia, and officials have asked if the Aquila drone could be used to beam service to parts of the nation.

"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," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru on Saturday.

The NTSB is continuing to investigate the drone crash and plans to release a full report within the next few months. The company has designed the drone to use solar energy and battery power to fly for months at a time, allowing it to deliver data 10 times faster than current models.

If the drone continues to see success, Facebook plans to build an entire fleet of similar models to deliver internet to more than 1.6 billion people in rural areas.  “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,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in post after the flight.

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