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Facebook halts drone program linked to spaceport

Facebook's Aquila drone (Facebook)
July 01, 2018

Facebook eyed Spaceport America as a potential test site for its drone program but is now shelving the initiative altogether and says it has no plans to invest further in the Southern New Mexico site.

Emails made public this week revealed New Mexico’s role in the now-stalled program more clearly than ever. But the future of Facebook’s drone ventures are surrounded by questions. It means what might have been a bright hope for the publicly owned spaceport has dimmed.

Facebook announced in 2014 that it was developing a drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 powered by solar panels and capable of beaming down wireless internet signals to the ground.

The tech behemoth billed it as a means of expanding internet and communications access to the developing world.

New Mexico, it seemed, was poised to play a role in the project.

Emails obtained by news website Business Insider reveal that Facebook told partners it held extensive talks with officials at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences about building a hangar and landing zone for experimental aircraft as part of what the company called Project Aquila.

The emails show Facebook ran into particular challenges, however.

The drone it was developing was designed to take off with the help of a dolly, for example. But concerns arose that such takeoffs would be impossible on the spaceport’s runway if the wind was blowing from particular directions.

And the drone it was developing was not designed to land on a runway but instead on bare ground. Facebook inquired about growing grass in an area to cushion a landing. Cautioned by spaceport officials at the time that it could take a considerable period to grow grass in what is very much the desert, the company inquired if the dirt could be better groomed.

Meanwhile, a maiden flight in Arizona during 2016 left Facebook’s aircraft damaged.

Other companies have been working along similar lines, with observers noting that Facebook’s effort paled in comparison to initiatives such as Project Loon, run by the experimental arm of Google’s parent company.

And Business Insider reported that the top engineer on the project left Facebook last month.

Still, federal records show a Facebook subsidiary applied earlier this year to test wireless communications technology in New Mexico for three months — ending this month — using an antenna that appears to be based at Spaceport America.

But Facebook announced this week it will not design or build its own aircraft after all.

A spokeswoman for the company confirmed Wednesday that Facebook had signed a short-term lease but has no plans for further investment or operations at Spaceport America.

Opened in 2011, the futuristic-looking facility in the Jornada del Muerto desert east of Truth or Consequences cost more than $200 million and is owned by the state government.

Boosters in then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration initially billed it as a hub for space tourism.

Regular flights toward the heavens have yet to take off, though.

And the facility, which the state is still paying off, has been marketing itself as a site to an increasingly competitive commercial space industry.

This shift appears to have buoyed political support for Spaceport America.

In 2016, Google tested an aircraft at the site, though the company is no longer working at Spaceport America.

Legislators who had viewed the spaceport as a boondoggle were more supportive earlier this year, approving millions of dollars in state funding to build additional facilities and creating an exception in New Mexico’s open-records law to keep some of its business dealings a secret.

“We are ideally suited to help the space industry and also the unmanned industry,” said Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks, who downplayed the significance of Facebook’s announcement Wednesday.

“We’d love them to come back, and maybe they will,” he said.


©2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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