In what could give a big boost to its mission of providing affordable internet access to unconnected people in remote areas around the globe, Facebook on Thursday announced the successful completion of the first test flight of its solar-powered drone called Aquila.
"After two years of engineering, I'm proud to announce the successful first flight of Aquila -- the solar-powered plane we designed to beam internet to remote parts of the world," said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook.
Aquila, which was announced at the F8 conference in March 2015, flew over Yuma, Arizona, during the test flight. The drone was originally supposed to stay in the air for only 30 minutes, but it ended up flying for 96 minutes, which was three times longer than the company's plan. Mark said: "We gathered lots of data about our models and the aircraft structure -- and after two years of development, it was emotional to see Aquila actually get off the ground."
The solar-powered drone was developed by Facebook Connectivity Lab as part of Internet.org initiative that aims to provide affordable internet connection to 4 billion people who are deprived of it. Once fully operational, Aquila will stay "airborne for up to 90 days at a time and beam broadband coverage to a 60-mile-wide area on the ground, helping to open the opportunities of the internet to people in underconnected regions." It can circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter and beam internet connectivity from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimetre wave systems.
Everything about Aquila
Body and weight: The solar-powered drone body is made of carbon fibre and has a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 737, but it weighs less than 1,000 pounds, that is about the weight of a grand piano, to help stay in the air for months. Almost half the mass of Aquila is from high-energy batteries, and the technical team is studying if its shape will be deformed under load.
Power: The drone will use only about 5,000W of power at cruising altitude that is about the amount of power consumed by three hairdryers. So, the energy collected by the aircraft during the day time should be enough to run propellers, communications payload, avionics, heaters and light systems.
Control: Aquila is an unmanned plane with automatic takeoff and landing. It is almost self-sufficient but a dozen of engineers, pilots and technicians direct, maintain and monitor it. A ground crew controls direction, altitude and airspeed of the drone through software.
Speed: The drone flies at a very slow speed to minimise energy usage. However, it can be sped up to 80 mph at higher altitude where the air is thinner.
Altitude: The wings and propellers of the drone should be able to operate in all altitudes – high, low, cold and warmer – as it has to take off, fly in the air and land. So, technology experts are studying on power consumption and impact that change of altitude can have on solar panel performance, battery size, latitude range and seasonal performance.
Communications: The drone will use lasers to transfer data quickly, which will be more than 10 times faster than the existing systems, and send its beams accurately to specific locations more than 11 miles away while in motion.
Facebook is planning to test Aquila over the next year. Once fully developed, the company wants a fleet of them to communicate with each other in the skies with lasers for months at a time and provide internet service to the remotest regions of the world.