Today (July 21) Facebook announced the first flight of Aquila, a solar-powered autonomous flying wing that will be able to beam the internet to users from 60,000 feet in the air across a 60 mile diameter for months at a time. Mark Zuckerberg’s company is hoping to start bringing the Internet and its promises to more of the 4 billion people without access to it (Check out a video of the maiden voyage here).
“Internet access can offer life-changing opportunities and experiences to all of us, but there are still 4 billion people without it. That’s 60% of the global population. As many as 1.6 billion of those unconnected people live in remote locations with no access to mobile broadband networks, where implementing existing network technologies is so challenging and costly that it will take years to bring everyone affordable access,” wrote Facebook Global Head of Engineering and Infrastructure Jay Parikh. “As part of our commitment to Internet.org, we formed the Facebook Connectivity Lab to build new technologies—including aircraft, satellites, and wireless communications systems—to help solve this problem more quickly.
Zuckerberg announced his company’s plans to take to the sky in 2014 and the company has been developing its plans since then. Meanwhile Google has also launched an airborne initiative to spread the Internet worldwide with its Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons with solar panels to power its Internet hardware.
The Aquila weighs about 800 pounds, has the wingspan of an 737 airliner and consumes only 5,000 watts, about the same as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave, Parikh explained. As such it and other flying drones Facebook will make will be capable of flying for roughly three months.
“This was the first time we’ve flown the full-scale aircraft,” Parikh said. The plane stayed aloft for 90 minutes, three times longer than they had initially planned, a good harbinger for the future of the project. “We will push Aquila to the limits in a lengthy series of tests in the coming months and years. Failures are expected and sometimes even planned; we learn more when we push the plane to the brink.”
“We’re encouraged by this first successful flight, but we have a lot of work ahead of us. In fact, to reach our goal of being able to fly over a remote region and deliver connectivity for up to three months at time, we will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight,” Parikh said. That record is currently held by the QinetiQ Zephyr, which stayed aloft for two weeks. “This will require significant advancements in science and engineering to achieve. It will also require us to work closely with operators, governments and other partners to deploy these aircraft in the regions where they’ll be most effective,”Tweet