Aquila has flown. Facebook’s ambitious solar drone project aimed at beaming free internet to places where it is not available has finally made a test flight.
Facebook has been working on the project as part of the many connectivity initiatives under Internet.org. Aquila is very similar to Google’s project Lion, which plans to use high flying balloons to beam internet signals down to remote areas.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the first flight in a Facebook post on Thursday. “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 Zuckerberg. He also shared a video of the flight.
Aquila is a solar powered plane with the wingspan of a Boeing 737. Last year, Yael Macguire of Facebook’s connectivity lab had told Indianexpress.com that the unmanned aircraft will be solar-powered and this will let it stay up for months on end. The cruising altitude will be around 60,000 feet (18km), much above commercial aircraft, and this will give it a footprint of 100 km diameter.
“We want the airplanes to be where the people are… It is really important that they can station keep, or stay in a particular region and connect a particular people. They will move, but around a small zone. When the plane moves the RF (radio frequency) system will adjust so that it continues to have the same terrestrial footprint,” Macguire had told Indianexpress.com.
While these aircraft try and create a grid of connectivity, there will also be dark spots without connectivity in areas with no substantial population. Those areas could be fed by satellite. “We want to make sure that various Express W-Fi networks are interconnected. The UAVs, meanwhile, will provide the equivalent of the microwave backhaul. We think of these of building blocks to ensure it is a robust network,” Macguire had said.
However, there will be challenges. “For instance, we have to be able to hit what is the size of a rupee from 17.7 km away to be able to interlink the UAVs,” Macguire had said. In labs, the team has been able to achieve 10x of existing state of the art data speeds and capacities.