Facebook has cancelled its solar-powered high altitude Internet drone project, Aquila, and is closing its site in Bridgewater, Somerset, with the loss of 16 high tech jobs.

The project aimed to put Internet basestations into the sky but ran into technical problems. The airframe, power and control systems were all developed in Somerset, and a 1/5 scale model flew multiple times. A full-size aircraft with a wingspan of 42m (above in the factory) flew twice in 2016.

The problems came with the communications system that would link the aircraft in the air and the data link to the ground, which was being developed at Facebook in the US.

Since Facebook bought the Ascenta consultancy in 2014 for $20m, other companies such as Qinetiq and Airbus have developed their own High Altitude Platform Station, or High Altitude Pseudo Satellite, (HAPS) called Zephr, and Facebook is looking to use this instead.

“As we’ve worked on these efforts, it’s been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology, too — including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft,” said Yael Maguire, director of engineering at Facebook.

“Given these developments, we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer and to close our facility in Bridgwater. Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on HAPS connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries.”

The Zephyr S has a wingspan of 25m and weighing less than 75kg and is built by Airbus in Farnborough. A larger version Zephyr T is currently in development with a wingspan of 33m and weighs 140kg and will be able to carry larger payloads than the Zephyr S, allowing it to carry some of the Facebook technologies.

The region is a major centre for the development of the latest drone technologies. High Tech Bristol and Bath organises the MAAXX Europe autonomous drone event each year at UWE in Bristol

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