Online networking service Facebook is now an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) operator, having achieved first flight of the first full-scale, solar-powered, ultra-long-endurance Aquila on 28 June in Yuma, Arizona.

A video released on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg’s “wall” on 21 July shows the 42m (137ft)-wingspan UAV lifting off at dawn from a runway on the Yuma Proving Ground, a major test site for military and commercial drones. It follows months of testing on sub-scale designs.

The flying-wing Aquila — the Latin word for “Eagle” — launched from a rolling cradle that was towed by a sport utility vehicle, then flew up to 2,150ft for 96min, or 66min longer than on the test card, Facebook says in a news release. Facebook has not revealed how the aircraft landed or was recovered, but no landing gear were visible.

Aquila 640

Photo: Facebook

The flight comes nearly a year after Facebook revealed an already year-old drone development project underway in Yeovil, UK. The social networking service had acquired Ascenta, a UK-based consultancy with former members of the Qinetiq Zephyr project, a solar-powered UAV that demonstrated nearly a fortnight of continuous flight.

Facebook has bold ambitions for the Aquila project, which combines innovations in high-altitude drone flight, solar-powered propulsion and laser communications.

Conceived as a means to deliver internet service in remote areas, Facebook envisions a constellation of Aquila’s in flights lasting up to 90 days, rising to 90,000ft at night and descending to 60,000ft during the day. The aircraft would communicate with each other and the ground using what Facebook claims is a new breakthrough in laser communications, with the ability to beam data at up to 10GB/s.

At cruise altitude, the Aquila’s four electric motors require 5,000W to keep the aircraft aloft, which Facebook compares to three hair dryers.