Hardware

Facebook's giant solar-powered drone takes flight to deliver internet to remote areas

Aquila, Facebook's massive unmanned airplane, recently completed its first test flight. Here's how the company wants to use it to improve connectivity around the world.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg checks out Aquila.
Image: Facebook

Aquila, Facebook's solar-powered drone that delivers internet connectivity via laser, completed its first successful test flight in late June, the company announced on Thursday. The drone, part of Facebook's Internet.org initiative and the Facebook Connectivity Lab, is one of the company's many efforts to bring internet access to unconnected areas around the world.

According to a blog post by Jay Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook, this was the first time the team had been able to fly the full-sized aircraft. The low-altitude flight lasted longer than 90 minutes, which was three times longer than had originally been planned for. The flight took place in Yuma, AZ.

"When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time," Parikh wrote.

While some refer to Aquila as a drone, being that it is unmanned, Facebook refers to it as "a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned solar-powered airplane." Aquila's wingspan is bigger than that of a Boeing 737, and its wings and frame are made of carbon fiber. It is solar-powered, so it runs on solar energy during the day and battery power at night. The batteries can last for up to 13 or 14 hours.

aquila2.jpg
Aquila in flight.
Image: Facebook

SEE: Drone policy template (Tech Pro Research)

The first flight was low-altitude, but Aquila is designed to be operated at 60,000 feet. In terms of power, Aquila uses about 5,000 watts, which is the same amount as three hairdryers, Facebook said. In lab tests, the laser it uses to deliver internet was able to send 10s of Gbps of data "to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away."

While the first full test was successful, Facebook acknowledged that it has a long way to go before it reaches its goals with Aquila. For example, to reach the three month flight time, it "will need to break the world record for solar-powered unmanned flight, which currently stands at two weeks." The company eventually wants to operate an entire fleet of aircraft like Aquila.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg first announced plans for an unmanned aircraft to deliver connectivity on a Facebook post back in March 2014. According to Internet.org, there are 4 billion people in the world without internet access, and 1.6 billion of them live in remote locations that aren't served by traditional means.

Facebook has even more tests planned for Aquila in the coming months and years.

"In our next tests, we will fly Aquila faster, higher and longer, eventually taking it above 60,000 feet," Parikh wrote. "Each test will help us learn and move faster toward our goal."

Other Silicon Valley giants have undertaken similar projects to provide connectivity to remote regions. Google's Project Loon, for example, uses balloons to deliver internet access using cellular spectrum.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Facebook's unmanned aircraft, Aquila, successfully completed a 96-minute test flight in late June 2016.
  2. Aquila uses laser technology to deliver internet access up to 10 miles away, with the goal of connecting remote regions that don't have access to traditional connectivity methods.
  3. Other companies, like Google, have attempted similar projects to improve connectivity in underserved regions.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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