Facebook's Massive Internet-Spreading Drone Completes First Test Flight

July 25, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Aquila, Facebook's wi-fi solar plane
Photo credit: Courtesy of Facebook

Facebook’s massive Aquila drone took the skies for the first time with a successful, but brief test flight.

The social media titan Facebook has reached a milestone in its quest to spread the internet to the far reaches of the world and connect over 4 billion of the planet’s more than 7 billion human inhabitants.

Last week the company announced the successful June test flight of Aquila, its unmanned flying-V drone that has a wingspan greater than a Boeing 747 commercial jet’s (196 feet), but weighs less than 1,000 pounds and will soar at altitudes between 60,000 and 90,000 feet on the same amount of power generated by three hair dryers.

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Aquila, Facebook's wi-fi solar plane

Aquila, Facebook’s drone aircraft that may work together with a fleet of drones and ground-based relay stations to enable internet access in remote regions. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

The test flight lasted 96 minutes, more than an hour beyond the original 30 minutes Aquila was planned to be tested in the air, but only a small fraction of the record-breaking three months the final design is expected to stay airborne thanks to its solar panel-lined wings.

“After two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO said in a note on the company’s website.

“But as big as this milestone is, we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Eventually, our goal is to have a fleet of Aquilas flying together at 60,000 feet, communicating with each other with lasers and staying aloft for months at a time — something that's never been done before.”

Aquila, Facebook's wi-fi solar plane

While there have been vast improvements in providing internet access across the globe, vast regions remain in the virtual dark or underserved. Image courtesy of Facebook

According to a post by Yael Maguire, head of Connectivity Lab, the Facebook division designing Aquila, the drone will serve as a building block for “operators, governments, and others” to provide internet access over remote regions by using lasers to beam a signal over a 60-mile radius on the ground, which is then relayed to devices in the area as Wi-Fi or LTE network.

As Zuckerberg said, a lot of work remains for the project.

Facebook engineers have outlined several challenges that they face in the coming year as they attempt to refine and perfect Aquila to achieve its full envisioned potential.

Collecting enough energy from the sun and finding the most efficient way to store it top the list of challenges ahead — not to mention the fact that engineers will need to solve the issues behind an unspecified structural failure Aquila experienced prior to landing.

“Over the next year we're going to keep testing Aquila — flying higher and longer, and adding more planes and payloads,” Zuckerberg said. “It's all part of our mission to connect the world and help more of the 4 billion people who are not online access all the opportunities of the internet.”

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